BOTTOM LINE: This is an extremely funny and perceptive play by the acknowledged master of British comedy. A real crowd-pleaser.
After seeing My Wonderful Day, the supremely enjoyable new play by (Sir) Alan Ayckbourn, I found myself thinking about Neil Simon. The two writers have often been compared. Both are immensely popular, successful and prolific. Each is a master craftsman of comedy. And while neither has had a new play on Broadway in many years, both have seen their work on the Great White Way this year. Ayckbourn’s 1976 trilogy The Norman Conquests won the 2009 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play. The recent production of Simon’s 1983 work Brighton Beach Memoirs fared less well, closing after only a week. At the performance I attended of My Wonderful Day, which is part of the “Brits Off Broadway” series at 59E59, the audience response was nothing short of ecstatic. What is Alan Ayckbourn doing right?
Ayckbourn's work has been (like Simon’s) routinely dismissed as being slight, even trivial. Recently, however, critics have begun to view Ayckbourn as an important commentator on the lifestyles of the British suburban middle class, and as an innovator who experiments with theatrical styles. The Norman Conquests won a 1976 Drama Desk Award for “Unique Theatrical Experience,” in recognition of its ingenious structure: the three plays are intricately linked, but can be viewed individually or in any order with complete understanding and satisfaction.
My Wonderful Day (Ayckbourn’s 73rd play) has no such structural complexity. It does, however, add a fresh note to Ayckbourn’s gimlet-eyed take on the British bourgeoisie. In this case, we see the foibles of the adult characters through the eyes of 8-year old Winnie Barnstairs, described as a “silent, watchful child.” She is also perceptive, insightful and disarming. In the hands of 28-year old actress Ayesha Antoine, Winnie is an utterly engaging character and a charmingly effective fulcrum for this sharply perceptive comedy.
Winnie has accompanied her pregnant mother Laverne to her job as housekeeper for a well-to-do couple in North London. When Laverne’s water breaks and she is taken to the hospital, Winnie is left in the care of the curmudgeonly Kevin, his twittering secretary (and lover) Tiffany and his hapless business associate Josh. Throughout the play the audience sees (and hears) only what Winnie sees, including a lot of pathetically childish adult behavior. The “grown-ups” either ignore Winnie altogether or take on a patronizing attitude toward her, unaware that she is recording everything they say and do for a school essay titled “My Wonderful Day.”
Ayckbourn writes great roles for actors, deftly seasoning recognizable characters with just enough comic exaggeration. And since he is also the director of the production, we can credit him with the beautifully realized performances from each and every member of the cast. Antoine is completely believable as an 8-year old, and communicates worlds in a mere stare. Petra Letang is wonderful as the sweetly delusional Laverne. Terrence Booth plays the arrogant Kevin to a tee. Ruth Gibson is absolutely delightful as the earnest airhead Tiffany. Alexandra Mathie makes a strong late appearance as Kevin’s estranged wife Paula, not easy since the character has been maligned throughout the play. Best of all is Paul Kemp as the fatuous Josh. He provides the play’s most touching moment as well as many of its funniest.
The production also benefits from an ingenious set and lighting design, which allows Ayckbourn the director to keep the action humming along with clarity and nuanced efficiency.
Full disclosure: I’m a total Anglophile. I have a special fondness for British dialects and linguistic tics, especially the habit of ending almost every statement with a question: “We practice our French today, don’t we?” “Want to say hello, do you?" “Be like going to the movies, won’t it?”
“Situation comedy” has gotten a deservedly bad rap. Ayckbourn and Simon have both been tarred with that epithet at times. But unlike some TV sitcoms, the comic plays of Alan Ayckbourn are not merely facile laugh fests. True, none of the characters in My Wonderful Day seem to learn anything, much less grow or change. But Ayckbourn has a special gift for making the awful funny without being cruel. And in the beguiling Winnie Barnstairs, he has created a heroine whose clear-eyed view of human absurdity lets us all laugh at ourselves.
(My Wonderful Day runs until Sunday, December 13; Tuesday at 7pm, Wednesday-Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2 and 8pm, and Sunday at 3pm and 7pm at 59E59 Theaters, 59 E. 59th Street. Tickets are $45 during previews, $60 after opening which is November 18. To purchase tickets call Ticket Central at 212-279-4200 or go to www.ticketcentral.com. For more information visit www.59e59.org or www.britsoffbroadway.com.)