Arrivals & Departures: New York Premiere Reviews

This page contains reviews of the New York premiere of Alan Ayckbourn's Arrivals & Departures at the 59E59 Theaters, New York, during the Brits Off Broadway festival during June 2014. Note several of the reviews refer to Arrivals & Departures as Alan Ayckbourn's 78th play; it is actually his 77th play. There is also mention that 2014 is the 50th anniversary of his first play, again this is incorrect 2014 was the 50th anniversary of bis first West End production.

Just Mill About, You Know, As Any Crowd Would Do (by Ben Brantley)
Those words are barked out by a British military officer to a sullen soldier and the eyewitness she has been assigned to protect during a counterterrorism sting in a London train station. But really, does the major truly expect anybody to merge under such circumstances - to blend in with a crowd, to seem one with strangers? After all, these characters from
Arrivals & Departures, the poignant new comedy that opened on Wednesday night at 59E59 Theaters, inhabit the universe of Alan Ayckbourn. And in his carefully charted cosmos, people are lonely planets, stuck in solitary orbits. Collision might occur from time to time. But merging?

Arrivals & Departures, part of the Brits Off Broadway festival, is the first of three shows by Mr. Ayckbourn to be staged in repertory this month under the collective title Ayckbourn Ensemble. They are all directed by their author, one of Britain’s best-loved dramatists and perhaps its most staggeringly prolific.

Mr. Ayckbourn turned 75 in April;
Arrivals & Departures is, by most reckonings, his 77th play. That’s quite a ratio of plays to years, one that would seem to embrace a certain level of exhaustion by this point.

Yet while
Arrivals & Departures possesses many traits long associated with Mr. Ayckbourn, it feels neither weary nor mechanical. There seems to be no expiration date on Mr. Ayckbourn’s extensive empathy for the losers we call human beings, nor on his enthusiasm for the possibilities of theatre.

Though it features two inspired Ayckbourn-defining performances from Kim Wall, as a resolutely ordinary bloke sucked up by extraordinary events. and Elizabeth Boag, as his guarded military minder, I wouldn’t put
Arrivals & Departures on the very top shelf occupied by masterworks like Mr. Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests, seen on Broadway in a splendid revival from the Old Vic in 2009. But in form and content, his latest offering is one of his most daring, a testament to a creative mind that remains anything but static.

You would probably not have imagined, for instance, that terrorism would figure in an Ayckbourn comedy, where the politics are more likely to be marital than martial. Yet in
Arrivals & Departures, the unseen catalyst is indeed a terrorist, of unspecified provenance, known as Cerastes and “as devious, dangerous and deadly as the viper after which he is named.”

That description comes from Quentin (Bill Champion), the priggish, clerical-minded man who heads the D group of the S.S.D.O., or Strategic Simulated Distractional Operations. If all the world’s a stage, and it usually is for Mr. Ayckbourn, then Quentin is the in-over-his-head director of this small corner of it. His mandate is to organise his troops into a facsimile of the usual crowd that swirls through a train station, where Cerastes is said to be headed.

Arrivals & Departures (which originated at Mr. Ayckbourn’s home base and creative laboratory, the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, England) begins with what is effectively a dress rehearsal. Quentin is delivering direction to operatives dressed up as husbands and wives, mothers and sons, tourists and station attendants. This being an Ayckbourn play, the relationships among the troops portraying these ordinary people are fractious. And Quentin, attired as a chauffeur, is not pleased with his cast’s performances.

Nor is he exactly delighted when a young soldier, Ez (Ms. Boag), interrupts the proceedings to say she has been assigned to guard a civilian being helicoptered in from Yorkshire. That’s Barry (Mr. Wall, bumbling brilliantly), a middle-aged traffic warden who had an unpleasant encounter with a man who may well be Cerastes. This means that Quentin must weave Ez and Barry into his little play of strategic deception.

He initially proposes that they pretend to be father and daughter, which we will come to see is an unfortunate suggestion. Ez’s father, a soldier, was killed in combat when she was a little girl, a loss that seems to be the root of her aggressively defensive demeanour. And Barry - whose spirited stabs at conversation trail off into sad, incomprehensible mutterings - has a daughter, a little older than Ez, with whom relations of late have been seriously strained.

We learn all this through a series of flashbacks, many of them set in transport terminals, which occupy far more stage time than the hunt for Cerastes. In the first act, it’s Ez’s personal history that we’re privy to, while the second act allows us to enter Barry’s mind.

Mr. Ayckbourn has always enjoyed playing with chronology and perspective, and here he uses the same time period to frame Ez’s and Barry’s respective reminiscences. The staging of the present-tense scenes of the second act is almost exactly the same as it is in the first, except that one is the mirror image of the other. Stage left and stage right have changed positions to match the shift in point of view. (Jan Bee Brown’s geometric set provides a perfectly simple and appropriate forum for the reversals.)

The back stories of Ez and Barry are as fraught with topical incident as a late-vintage Law & Order episode, featuring instances of betrayal that include date rape, sudden death and embezzlement. Yet the melodrama - like that of the framing terrorism plot - acts as a bracing counterpoint to the clumsy, funny interactions of Ez and Barry.

You see, for Mr. Ayckbourn, as for Chekhov, farce and tragedy are no more mutually exclusive in theatre than they are in life. And running throughout
Arrivals & Departures is a gentler undercurrent of sadness about people’s failure to connect. Putting the garrulous, inquisitive Barry and the rigidly self-contained Ez together would seem akin to Sartre’s assembling the mutually torturing souls in hell of No Exit.

But Barry and Ez’s differences make us think of the different ways in which we all shut people out, and what we lose by doing so. At one point, Ez repels Barry’s conversational overtures by observing brusquely that they have nothing in common.

“We’ll never know now, will we?” Barry answers. In that lack of knowledge, there’s a wealth of regret. That’s Mr. Ayckbourn’s muse of melancholy speaking. It is evidently a muse that can keep a playwright vital and engaged, even during a packed half-century of productivity.

(New York Times, 4 June 2014)

A Gotta-See Alan Ayckbourn Festival (by David Finkle)
The big fact about 75-year-old Alan Ayckbourn is that he's written 78 - count 'em, 78 - plays during his long career, including two, actually three, receiving world premieres these weeks at 59E59 Theaters. It's what you might call an Alan Ayckbourn mini-festival to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his first production.

Looked at another way, you could say he has so many works available either for premieres or revivals that at almost any time an Ayckbourn fan or Ayckbourn newbie might be able to encounter a new or old Ayckbourn work. Right now in London, for instance, his
A Small Family Business is on view. The latter will be broadcast in internationally HD on June 12.

The first of the 59E59 three, all directed by Ayckbourn, is the world premiere of
Arrivals & Departures. I can't say that of the nearly four score Ayckbourn plays, it's the darkest, but that's only because I haven't seen them all.

I can say that by the final fade-out this new one is extremely dark, even though it starts out light as a July day. Captain Quentin Sexton (Bill Champion), an Army officer running a sting set up to ensnare a suspected terrorist, is drilling a group of actors meant to be ordinary people milling at a train station. They're all comically hopeless at their assigned tasks.

Into their midst come Barry Hawkins (Kim Wall), a traffic warden present because he can identity the suspect, and Esmé "Ez" Swain (Elizabeth Boag), a 23-year-old soldier sent to protect Hawkins. It's their two stories Ayckbourn wants to tell as they more or less interact with each other. So he includes intermittent flashbacks to their earlier lives while they wait for the entrapment charade to swing into motion.

Barry, a gabby and seemingly cheerful chap, tries to chat up Ez, who's proud of her career but preoccupied by a troubled private life. As Sexton and troupe swirl around them, so do their disturbing memories, and the more their memories accumulate--hers throughout the first act, his throughout the second--the unhappier they're revealed to be. Moreover, there's the threat of worse to come when the suspect known as Cerastes (Ben Porter) finally arrives.

Through the years, Ayckbourn, often called on these shores the British Neil Simon, has been of two minds about people's natures. Here, however, he's ready to declare himself an out-and-out pessimist. It's a sometimes funny but ultimately bleak view, maximised by Ayckbourn's direction as well as by the superb performance from Wall, Boag and the rest of the Ayckbourn-savvy troupe.
(Huffington Post, 12 June 2014)

The Funny-Sad Complexity of Alan Ayckbourn's Arrivals and Departures (by Jesse Green)
Arrivals and Departures is Alan Ayckbourn’s 78th play, which means (if I have my math right) he’s written one each year since birth and three before it. (He’s 75.) This may explain or at least justify his name, which is pronounced “ache-born”: From the start, even his most knockabout comedies have harboured a secret sadness. You could almost miss it in any single outing; was there a minute left over from laughter to think deep thoughts about The Norman Conquests? But in the aggregate it’s apparent that the devious structural mechanisms he’s famous for - the perspective shifts, the interlocked serialisations, the multidirectional time schemes - are the means by which he shapes and shares a melancholy view of the world. Unlike his near contemporary Tom Stoppard, whose theatrical gamesmanship sometimes seems designed to keep such feelings at a safe distance, Ayckbourn engineers structures that allow unsafety. His plays are memory palaces, and (because they are funny) forgetting palaces too.

Play No. 78, now running in repertory with two other Ayckbourn evenings as part of the
Brits Off Broadway festival, should possibly count as Nos. 79 and 80 as well; Arrivals and Departures is really (at least) three plays in one. The first, a shell for the other two, concerns the bumbling attempts of a quasi-military unit called Strategic Simulated Distractional Operations to catch a bad guy codenamed Cerastes at a London rail terminal. Under the leadership of the officious Captain Sexton, the unit’s two dozen members (rendered here by a mere handful of actors) rehearse the behaviour of “normal” travellers so that Cerastes, when he disembarks, will be lulled into a false sense of security. Ayckbourn is doing the same thing to the audience by means of the comedy. The SSDO team members are hilariously terrible in their roles: They drop their fake babies and mangle their absurd accents. We are thus disarmed.

But two outsiders are attached to the plan. Barry Hawkins is a late-middle-aged Yorkshire traffic warden helicoptered to London to identify Cerastes, to whom he recently gave a parking ticket. Affable, excited, and phenomenally garrulous, Barry is also, in Kim Wall’s sterling performance, a magic act of verbal and physical tics assembled into the absolute likeness of a very specific reality. You’ve known and avoided this man, and felt bad about it.
The other outsider is Ez (formerly Esmé) Swain, a 23-year-old soldier whose mission, which she is in no way happy about, is to protect and endure Barry. But then Ez doesn’t seem to be happy about anything - and in Act One, as the Cerastes operation proceeds from rehearsal to performance, we learn, in dozens of flashbacks, why. The daughter of a military hero father and a smothering hysteric mum, Ez has dedicated her life to the achievement of honour through the army and of equanimity through the control of emotion. As played with moving restraint by Elizabeth Boag, she is competent and unclubbable, wary in a way that’s both painful and apt. Amazingly, through the flashbacks (some just a few seconds, others playlets in themselves) she and Ayckbourn show you how her inner story has made her the kind of person we see in the outer one.

If Ez’s flashbacks function conventionally, Ayckbourn upends the convention in Act Two, which is, in outline, a rerun of Act One. This time, though, we get Barry’s history. His flashbacks - to multiple betrayals in love and business, as well as a drunken wedding and an astonishingly ugly brown suit - are painstakingly fitted into the holes in the action we witnessed earlier, holes we didn’t even notice at the time. Though about half of the play is thus repeated, all of it is altered, and deepened; we are now following not only Barry’s biography, and the SSDO caper, but reexamining Ez in light of what we’ve learned about her. Something even beyond all this arises too, like an overtone: the recognition that the greater part of each person’s reality is utterly invisible to anyone else. The emotional climax of Barry’s backstory, for instance, fully and beautifully rendered in Act Two, actually does occur in Act One; we just can’t see it as it happens. (He seems to be cleaning his glasses with his tie at the time). In this way we are implicitly asked to contemplate how much of life happens for other people in the moments when they look away suddenly, or we do.

It’s a flaw or a glory of
Arrivals and Departures that this “overtone” story is the most powerful and original. Barry’s and Ez’s flashback biographies have soap-opera tendencies; the SSDO shell is a bit of a farce (until suddenly, in a coda, it isn’t). One may even be tempted to suggest that each of these would benefit from being developed more fully on its own; in any case, their different styles make for a lumpy sauce. And the production, directed by Ayckbourn and imported from his home at Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre, is (aside from the two lead performances) less than ideal. The “bad acting” of the actors is not very convincing, especially when repeated so often; the production values (sets, sound, wigs) are not at typical New York levels. But this may be part of the conception, or at least a conscious compromise. Ayckbourn seems to feel that such things are only incidentally related to the main business at hand.

That business would be the building of narrative structures whose complexity forces a deep imaginative engagement. In
Arrivals and Departures, Ayckbourn is interested not in any one narrative mode or any one character but in the brilliant geometries of their connection. And of ours. Clearly the goofy Barry is his mouthpiece when he argues against the cynicism of disengagement:

I’ll tell you what life’s taught me. It’s taught me if you start out always thinking the best of people, just occasionally maybe you’ll be disappointed; but if you start out thinking the worst of everyone, chances are you’ll be permanently miserable all of your life and serve you bloody right.
It may be preachy, but after 78 mostly undisappointing plays, Ayckbourn has earned the right to build a small soapbox in his latest fantastic cathedral.

(New York Magazine, 5 June 2014)

Sadness With A Smile (by Terry Teachout)
Ever since Alan Ayckbourn's
Private Fears in Public Places came to New York in 2005, 59E59 Theaters' annual Brits Off Broadway festival has made Mr. Ayckbourn's work a reasonably regular part of its bill of fare. Now the festival is presenting three of his plays in rotating repertory under the portmanteau title of Ayckbourn Ensemble, all of them directed by the playwright himself and performed by his own company, the Stephen Joseph Theatre of Scarborough, England. Two of the plays, Arrivals & Departures and Farcicals, are world premieres and the third, Time of My Life, is being seen in New York for the first time. That makes Ayckbourn Ensemble a major event by definition, since Mr. Ayckbourn, whom many critics on both sides of the Atlantic long dismissed as a prolific purveyor of flyweight farces, is now increasingly recognised as a playwright of real stature, one of the very best we have.

Mr. Ayckbourn's genius lies in his ability to write what you might call 'sad comedies,' uproariously funny farces that are at second glance deeply serious, at times despairing portraits of modern middle-class life and its discontents. On occasion, as in
Arrivals & Departures, he puts the despair at centre stage, and what results is a play that at bottom can no longer be called a comedy at all. The scene is a London train platform where a preposterously ineffectual trap is being laid for a terrorist. Enter a sullen young woman (Elizabeth Boag) and an amiable old duffer (Kim Wall) whose minds are elsewhere, and to whose vagrant memories the members of the audience are privy. As the dragnet tightens, we learn about the piercing sorrows of their little lives, and what began as a comedy of incompetent bureaucracy becomes a tragedy that ends in shocking blackness.

Time of My Life, first performed in 1992, is much funnier than Arrivals & Departures, and also much more technically complex. It's one of Mr. Ayckbourn's most virtuosic experiments in postmodern narrative, one whose construction is best explained by the author himself: "My intention was to perceive a single moment in life - in this case where the characters are apparently very happy. I then proceed to look at that moment through the eyes of the three pairs of protagonists. One pair remaining for two hours in the present, one pair proceeding two years into the future and one pair receding two months into the past." Got it?

Don't be scared off, for all is as clear as a brand-new pane of glass when you see
Time of My Life acted onstage. Once you get past the initial craziness of the premise - a birthday dinner for three couples in which one of the guests gets hopelessly plastered within minutes of her arrival - you'll be swept up in Mr. Ayckbourn's increasingly bleak portrayal of the polite brutalities of family life, and chilled each time his characters let the mask slip and admit what they're really thinking: "We are happy, aren't we?" "Yes. We're happy. I think we're happy. Aren't we? Pretty happy, anyway. Who the hell ever knows when they're happy? I don't know."

Even when the tone of an Ayckbourn play is unabashedly frothy, seriousness is never very far from the surface.
Farcicals, for instance, is a double bill of brilliantly concise one-act farces about two suburban couples (played by Ms. Boag, Bill Champion, Sarah Stanley and Mr. Wall) whose marriages are frayed around the edges. The laughter is near-continuous, especially in Chloë With Love, in which Ms. Stanley plays a demoralised frump who dresses up as a sex-crazed vamp in order to excite her wayward spouse. But Mr. Ayckbourn never lets you forget that both marriages really are in trouble - and that it's the men, as usual in his woman-centric plays, who deserve the bulk of the blame.

Part of what makes
Ayckbourn Ensemble so noteworthy is that it allows New Yorkers to see for themselves how good a director Mr. Ayckbourn is. Witness Time of My Life. On Sunday I saw it from the second row of the theatre, and was bewitched throughout by the minute subtleties of the author's staging, in which every single detail tells. No less striking, though, was the way in which Mr. Ayckbourn emphasised the play's bleakness without stinting on the comic touches that make its harsh truths palatable. The ensemble cast, here as well as in Arrivals & Departures and Farcicals, was fully equal to the formidable challenge of keeping laughter and tears in perfect counterpoise. I doubt you'll ever see a finer production of any of these remarkable plays.
(Wall Street Journal, 12 June 2014)

Ayckbourn Ensemble (by David Gordon)
Every two years, playwright/director Alan Ayckbourn and cast members from the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, England, make a pilgrimage to New York to take part in 59E59 Theaters's
Brits Off Broadway festival. Ayckbourn uses it as an occasion to present the American premiere of his latest play. This season, the prolific playwright has given us three (or four, depending on how you count). Under the banner title Ayckbourn Ensemble, audiences have the opportunity to see Arrivals & Departures, Ayckbourn's 77th full-length work, along with the New York premiere of his time-bending 1992 drama Time of My Life, and a double bill of silly comedies collectively titled Farcicals. This experience is an embarrassment of riches for Ayckbourn's ardent fans - a cup that proverbially runneth over. Each of the productions is, in a word, superb.
Arrivals & Departures is a surprisingly heavy 11-character play set in a railway terminal where Major Quentin Sexton (Bill Champion) has staged an elaborate trap for a wanted terrorist who is a mere hour or so away by train. Major Sexton is soon joined by Ez (Elizabeth Boag), a sullen soldier who is tasked with babysitting Barry (Kim Wall), a slow-talking country traffic cop who witnessed an incident involving the suspect. As the unlikely pair bonds over Barry's incessant jabbering, the audience is treated to their individual back stories. We learn that Ez, formerly called Esmé, is the daughter of a deceased soldier, and is quiet and jittery for a reason. Barry, meanwhile, has a few secrets of his own. Ayckbourn's play deftly blends comedy and drama (though the shock ending isn't particularly satisfying), and while it's not necessary top-drawer, it's merely very good, and goes to show that the 75-year-old author's mind is nimble as ever.
A stronger work is
Time of My Life, which takes place, initially, on the 59th birthday of Laura Stratton (Sarah Parks). After the first scene, Ayckbourn starts bending time to present the stories of each family member. He follows Laura and her husband, Gerry (Russell Dixon), in real time over the course of a few hours in the restaurant where the party was held, as she reveals a drunken secret that changes the course of their marriage. Juxtaposed with this is an examination of their eldest son Glyn's (Richard Stacey) relationship with his wife, Stephanie (Emily Pithon), over the course of the two following years. A third strand of plot involves the youngest son, Adam (James Powell), and moves backward to reveal how his relationship with his girlfriend, Maureen (Rachel Caffrey), has disintegrated since they first met. Swiftly directed by the playwright, each cast member, a list that includes Ben Porter in a tour de force as a variety of waiters, turns in a heartbreaking performance that hammers home Ayckbourn's central thesis, expressed at the play's very end: Enjoy the moments that you can "positively identify as being among the happy moments," as you never know when you'll have one again.
Happy moments do indeed abound in
Farcicals, the banner title for the short comedies Chloë With Love and The Kidderminster Affair. These two insignificant but deliriously hilarious works once again feature Boag, Champion, and Wall, along with Sarah Stanley (who also appeared in Arrivals). The quartet plays a pair of rather mismatched couples who end up in a series of compromising positions with one another as they discuss love, marriage, and infidelity - as they engage in a food fight. Ayckbourn's skill for wordplay is on excellent display in Chloë, which features one of the smartest, slyly funniest discussions about wine ever to be seen onstage.
The fun of seeing Ayckbourn's plays in rapid succession is seeing the themes in his work;
Time of My Life and Arrivals & Departures might have been written two decades apart, but they share similar ideas of family and tradition, love and loss. Expertly staged by the playwright, the plays are perfectly cast, though one must call out Boag and Wall for their performances in the former. In the hands of a lesser actress, Ez in Arrivals could just be sullen, but Boag adds a great deal of gravitas within her dead eyes and slumped shoulders. Similarly, Wall's Barry is extremely recognisable as that guy you never want to associate with: the close talker with a nervous laugh, a person you do your best to avoid at all costs. It's jaw-droppingly realistic, and like Ayckbourn's plays themselves, it provides a real sucker punch that you don't see coming.
(, 11 June 2014)

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