All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Mystery and time travel supersede comedy in “Communicating Doors,” an absorbing thriller by Alan Ayckbourn, who provides a lot of suspense, several instances of danger, and much to occupy the deductive part of your mind as he depicts three interesting women using their wits to piece together clues that can save some, or all, of them their lives. Even after two of the lives are regarded as lost!
Don’t worry. Ayckbourn is a comedian first and foremost, so there’s plenty of laughs in “Communicating Doors” and in the Hedgerow production playing through Sunday, Oct. 5 (incidentally the 40th anniversary of the first time I saw an Ayckbourn play). Zoran Kovcic, with a few well-placed and well-delivered “hey, hey, hey’s,” and Kyra Baker as the befuddled dominatrix who calls herself Poopay, take care of that.
Meanwhile, Brock D. Vickers exudes menace with the conscienceless nonchalance and teasing sarcasm of a Pinter thug, and Stacy Skinner galvanizes Liam Castellan’s thoughtful staging by being the picture of clear-headed presence of mind, one whose calm sanity and quick thinking allows for the tenuous chance she and others might be rescued from Vickers’s purposefully efficient plan for their demise.
Castellan keeps things taut and tense as Skinner’s Ruella and Baker’s Poopay, a.k.a. Phoebe, unravel the fateful circumstance of their meeting and sort out how what one has to tell the other can impact both of their existences. Jokes come from funny or flippant things characters say, usually while challenged or agitated. Ayckbourn stays true to habit in devising an intricate plot that involves many surprising twists and bends, but he breaks his own mold by emphasizing the serious, sometimes dire, situations his characters face rather than concentrating on droll or seemingly unintentional humor.
Castellan, Skinner, Baker, and Vickers make you care about everything that happens on the Hedgerow stage, the actors defining their characters well so that you shudder to think of harm being done to the impressively reasonable Ruella or the brave but vulnerable Phoebe at the unscrupulous hands of Vickers’s villain, Julian. Playwright, director, and actors keep you on tenterhooks at times as you worry about what might befall the characters Julian pursues in the small confines of a hotel suite Kovcic, as set designer, outfitted with many doors that would need to be locked for total safety.
Ayckbourn uses elements of science fiction and good old-fashioned murder mystery to good effect in his story, about three women who are involved with the same tycoon, Reece, in intervals that are 20 years apart, Ruella and Jessica, played by Mary Beth Shrader as his wifes, Poopay as a prostitute — make that sexual therapy specialist — armed with handcuffs and whips. The thriller genre is the one that matters. The women have to figure out their relationship to one another while staving off Julian. Watching them deduce their situation and conspire to handle it is the entertainment. And engrossing it is!
Science comes in when you realize the women, despite their connection to Reece, have never met but come together through a weird time warping passage to meet in 2014 and 1994, although the play begins and Poopay lives in 2034. Ayckbourn’s foray into fantasy is worth any suspension of disbelief. The author works out every move with shrewd precision and provides an ending that is as startling as is it gratifying. Theater’s most mathematically oriented playwright once again comes up with the right combinations to create an inventive, involving entertainment.
The Hedgerow company allows you enjoy every ounce of Ayckbourn’s cleverness. The opening scene between Reece, Julian, and Poopay proceeds like a typical comedy, Julian being taken aback when he doesn’t answer the door to the sex worker he requested, Poopay about to retreat when she realizes her customer is an 80-year-old who can barely wheeze, let alone breathe, and Reece desperately wanting to convey his purpose in asking for a partner to the obtuse, then skeptical Poopay.
Humor comes from various quarters as no one seems to understand what another wants or expects, and each stubbornly continues to insist on proceeding, or exiting, without giving an attentive ear to anyone else’s wishes.
Finally, Ayckbourn settles matters enough that Poopay is willing to follow instructions given to her by Reece who has hidden a document and wants Poopay to retrieve it from its place of safekeeping. That’s when the intrigue begins. You stop thinking about who Reece and Poopay are as much as you wonder about the contents of the document and Reece’s haltingly uttered plea for Poopay to trust him and adhere to his directions.
Plot has taken over from character, and suspense replaces sex farce. Julian’s return and obviously sincere threat to dispatch Poopay makes her a fugitive of sorts. Escaping his grasp by an eyelash, the dominatrix takes refuge in a closet that can be locked from the inside. As Julian huffs and puffs and seems as if he might knock the closet door down, Poopay notices she is actually in a narrow space between adjoining rooms of the hotel. The door on the other side is unlocked. Poopay retreats through it, and “Communicating Doors,” already engaging, weaves its true spell.
What Poopay finds triggers the rest of Ayckbourn’s play, and to tell much more would be to give away plot machinations that are more delightful, and more fun, to find out in person.
Let’s just say “Communicating Doors’s” world grows and alters. Both of Reece’s former wives, each of whom had reason to fear and distrust Julian, figure into the story. We learn more about all kinds of relationships, but the real matter is whether a past event, if known in time, can be prevented and its effects reversed.
This is Ayckbourn’s greatest among several puzzles, and Castellan and his cast are to be cheered for the clarity and urgency they give each revelation and ensuing dilemma in playwright’s adeptly woven story. We are rapt to learn more of all that transpired over a 40-year period and more on edge to find out what, if anything, can be done to alter it. Like a team of mathematicians, we work on possibilities the same way, and at the same time, Ayckbourn’s characters do. No fourth wall is broken, but actors and audience are both on the case, and both are eager to see it solved felicitously.
In almost every pre-show speech at Hedgerow, Penelope Reed, Jared Reed, or Susan Wefel talks about the symbiosis between performers and their audience. In Castellan’s production of “Communicating Doors,” the relationship is palpable. You can feel everyone working together to crack this mystery and bring matters to their brightest possible conclusion.
The cast, without surrendering character or soliciting participation from the audience, invites them into the action by portraying their roles in a way that makes the audience like them and to devoutly wish for their safety.
Stacy Skinner’s Ruella is the Sherlock Holmes of the bunch. A stylish, accomplished woman, Ruella is unimpressed with sentimentality or weakness. She thinks Poopay is mad and has her hustled out of the hotel by security before her mind embraces the importance of what Poopay may have to impart.
You can see Skinner considering the bizarre event of Poopay coming unannounced into her hotel room and babbling something about a murder. You see her snap to decisive action when she comprehends all that might be happening, unbelievable as it seems, and summons Poopay back for further questioning.
Skinner provides a backbone for “Communicating Doors.” Ayckbourn makes Ruella the central figure of his play and endows her with the perception and imagination to realize danger may be afoot. Skinner embodies Ruella’s intelligence and her inability to suffer fools gladly, be they a simpering Poopay or a reluctant hotel house detective.
You enjoy seeing Skinner fathom everything that suggests itself from Poopay’s story about Reece and the document he has written. You like it even more when her Ruella refuses to take any circumstance for granted and goes about orchestrating a plan that affects past, present, and future in Ayckbourn’s deftly crafted script that consolidates 40 years into a single night in 2014.
Skinner keeps you riveted on any specific problem at hand, be it to test Poopay’s assertion about time travel or how to thwart Julian in 1994, 2014, and 2034. She is the one with the ‘aha’ moments and the one who foments all courses of action.
Kyra Baker is a good partner to Skinner as Poopay. Baker’s is the most rangy and complex performance in Castellan’s production. She must convince as a saucy sex worker, as a woman too panicked to speak, as a girl who is frightened by things outside her deep but narrow experience, and as a committed ally willing and able to assist Ruella, Watson-like, in matters that are fragile and often fraught with peril.
Baker, who has a natural style that makes you forget she is acting, was amply able to convey all of Poopay’s moods and attitudes, whether they were brazen or apprehensive, bold or juvenile. As Poopay, the dominatrix, she is a dynamic woman of her time, brave and plain-spoken. As Phoebe, the less confident youngster who depends on Ruella’s strength and courage, she shows the vulnerability of the person who pretends to be tough but has no resouces when actual calamity strikes.
In a series of brief scenes, Mary Beth Shrader makes her mark as Jessica, Reece’s first wife with whom he is seen honeymooning in 1994. Shrader is justifiably nonplussed when Skinner’s Ruella, from seemingly out of nowhere, intrudes on her wedding night and is handily amused by Jessica’s participation in Ayckbourn’s denouement for “Communicating Doors.”
You don’t see Shrader much, but when you do, she offers a good comic turn and a different kind of sensibility from Ruella’s and Poopay’s..
Brock D. Vickers is truly scary as Julian, a business partner of Reece’s, and his enforcer of sorts.
No jot of humor or joy is seen on Julian’s face, as Vickers plays him. His Julian is man whose mind is constantly on business, often sinister business that affects world financial markets and individual lives.
Vickers looks simultaneously matinee-idol handsome and reptilian as the single-minded Julian, who only expresses emotion only when he believes he is about to kill.
Vickers’s Julian is a man you would cross the street to avoid. Though well-groomed, he looks grim and determined to inflict corporal harm to anyone who stands in his way.
Vickers’s speech is measured and threatening. He uses a slow English drawl that seems portentous even when Julian is talking about something mundane or reading a bedtime story to an ailing Reece.
Vickers drips malevolence. You do not doubt why all three woman speak of him with a tone of odium and horror. Vickers looks like a walking shark who only exists to consume prey and who would be willing to dispose of them gleefully.
Although Shaun Yates plays one character, Reece, he has a triple role. Vickers’s Julian ages, but the effect is subtle — except maybe for a ludicrous Beatles wig he dons for the 1994 sequences — and the aura of menace remains constant.
Yates plays three different Reeces, one, also with flowing hair, on his honeymoon in his twenties; one on the brink of death and pleading with Poopay to do him an important favor, and one who belies what we hear of Reece as a benign criminal who organizes a spate of wrongdoing but lets Julian do his dirtiest work.
In all of these guises, Yates has a telling moment. The paroxysms of pain and spasm he acts to Poopay’s horror are well played and make you want Reece to live and get what he desires from Poopay. The gentleness with which he plays a respected counselor and devoted family man is sincere and makes a heartfelt impression. The randiness with which he plays an eager, ardent groom, gives “Communicating Doors” some levity at an exact time it needs it.
Yates differentiates the various ages and aspects of his character so well, it’s difficult to know whether to praise him most for his doddering as the addled Reece or for his sweetness as a paternal Reece.
Zoran Kovcic may be the most reliable character actor in the region. He can go deadpan or be broadly comic. In his role as a house detective, he opts to be a little bit of both and earns laughs from both stances. He is particularly funny when he is warning someone in his custody about summoning the police and in his reaction when someone disrespects or talks back to him.
“Communicating Doors” is a satisfying entertainment because it offers audience a taste of several theatrical genres and makes a savory treat of each. Liam Castellan has fashioned a delightful yet tension-fraught production that shrewdly brings out all that Ayckbourn packs into his play. The suspense is particularly tickling, and there are moments when it percolates to a point of being enjoyably unbearable.
Ayckbourn is a wonderful architect of complex theatrical structures, but he builds at least one extra wing, or unnecessary and irritating scene, “Communicating Doors” might be better without. It involves a character falling from a window when rescue is possible. The sequence plays like a gimmick, and at Hedgerow, it goes on a bit too long.
As set designer, Kovcic did a fine job engineering the doors by which Ruella and Poopay slip into earlier times. You can see the transport taking place on a stage left revolve. The construction is simple and spooky at the same time. I never tired of seeing the space between the doors used in action.
My only cavil would be about the sofa in the sitting room of the hotel suite. The piece of fabric covering the underneath of the sofa, looked a little chintzy and had loose strings that needed to be trimmed from the bottom. This small detail took away from the idea of an elegant or multi-star hotel room.
Cathie Miglionico did a fine job choosing the clothes for the characters. I especially liked the black ensemble in which she dressed Jessica. Jared Reed’s lighting often added to the suspense of a sequence.
“Communicating Doors” runs through Sunday, October 5, at Hedgerow Theatre, 64 Rose Valley Road, in Rose Valley, Pa. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. A 2 p.m. matinee is scheduled for Wednesday, September 17. Tickets range from $34 to $25, with discounts available for students and seniors. They can be obtained by calling 610-565-4211 or by visiting www.hedgerowtheatre.org.