Written and Directed By Alan Ayckbourn
Off Broadway, New Play
Runs through 6.29.14
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street
by Shoshana Roberts on 6.5.14
Bill Champion and Kim Wall in ARRIVALS & DEPARTURES, parts of Brits Off Broadway. Photo by Andrew Higgins.
BOTTOM LINE: Come for the writing, stay for the acting, and leave with a tear in your eye, be it from laughter or sadness.
What makes you smile? Did you smile today? Was it forced or genuine? Perhaps it was without cause. Maybe you're one of those people who always walks around with a grin on their face. Then again, you might not have smiled all week. Soldier Ez Swain (Elizabeth Boag) is a woman who has lived most of her twenty-three years without cracking a smile. Civilian Barry Hawkins (brilliantly performed by Kim Wall) is slowly chipping away at Ez's hard exterior though while she is on her assignment: “CBSD [aka] Civilian Baby Sitting Detail.” Alan Ayckbourn's Arrivals & Departures incorporates farce with drama and delivers a spectacular evening of enjoyment and empathy.
The production begins with Quentin (Bill Champion), a military major dressed as a chauffeur, at a London rail terminal. He barks orders to men and women who are all set up to catch a terrorist. Despite a vague description of the suspect, Cerastes, they are sure the criminal is on a train headed for their station. Unfortunately the performances of Quentin's squad are not as believable as he would like. With Cerastes' train arriving in about an hour an unexpected Ez shows up and interrupts the process. Barry, a traffic warden, comes soon after as a witness who can identify Cerastes due to having given him a parking ticket. What is so wonderful about these two characters are their demeanors. Scowls with a side of backtalk are Ez's specialty while Barry shines at friendly yet annoying quirks. Not only does he mutter to himself, but he constantly stands a little too close, fiddles with his pockets, sucks candy loudly, and talks, and talks, and talks. Throughout the present day, occurrences at the train station actions are paused so flashbacks of Ez's and Barry's lives can occur. Aspects of the conversation as well as the environment of the terminal inspire the painful memories in both individuals' pasts.
Now the thing about Mr. Ayckbourn is that he often incorporates a twist. Something new or something different always seems to accompany his work. In this case a kind of wonderful time construct is utilized. The second act replays the same actions as the first act. Lines are the same, the intents are the same, but one act portrays Ez's recollections while the other act follows Barry's storyline. We see the events that have shaped who they are: the 'why' behind the 'who.'
Mr. Ayckbourn has such a knack for comedy, yet my stomach was in knots at the climax of the production. The jokes are necessary so audiences don't sob, but the emotions I was presented with surpassed happy and sad. Such relevant subjects as rape, unfaithful partners, controlling parents, embarrassing parents, loss of a loved one, and dealing with those unlike ourselves are all mixed together. Fast paced, it is occasionally hard to follow the range of topics covered, but it is necessary for covering the vast amount of information stuffed into the two and a half hours.
In this world we can only control what we choose and what we do. Events that occur shape you, but you choose what to take out of your experiences. Some people like Barry brush off the bad and others like Ez carry around their baggage. It is impossible to know what a person has experienced in the past, but if we allow it we can all learn and grow and actually enjoy ourselves, despite the skeletons in our closets.
Alan Ayckbourn is aging like a fine wine with his thoughts sweet and tart coming out of his 75 year old mind. He has written 78 plays, the first of which was produced 50 years ago. What is so impressive with this production is that we see many moments a second time. The same scenes are replayed and I laughed at the same jokes I had just heard half an hour before a second time. How is that possible? Doesn't it describe an impossible feat like licking your elbow? Nay... it describes a committed cast with a brilliant man giving them guidance.
(Arrivals & Departures plays at 59E59 Theater, 59 East 59th Street through June 29, 2014. Performance times vary. For a detailed schedule visit www.59e59.org. Tickets are $70 ($49 for 59E59 Members) and are available at www.59e59.org or by calling 212.279.4200.)