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A Brief History of Women

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - May 2, 2018

Frances Marshall, Laurence Pears, Antony Eden,
Laura Matthews, and Louise Shuttleworth
Photo by Tony Bartholomew

Playwright Alan Ayckbourn is the sort of guy you might well expect to whip through a Rubik's Cube in under a minute, hand it back to you, smile and say "here you go," and then run off to perform some other feat of legerdemain, like, say, writing his 81st play. All right, I'll admit I made up the part about the Rubik's Cube. But it is a very good analogy to describe what actually is Play Number 81 in Ayckbourn's long, prolific, and seemingly unstoppable career. It is a delightfully clever and intricately designed sweet-sad-comical-romantic work called A Brief History of Women, opening tonight at 59E59 Theaters as part of the Brits Off Broadway festival.

The title is a little misleading. It should be something like "A Brief History of the Women Who Helped Shape the Life of Anthony Spates From the Age of 17 to the Age of 77." That, in a nutshell, is the plot as it is being performed by the tight-knit collective of six splendid actors who have been together since the play premiered last year at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, England, where Ayckbourn's Number 82 is set to open in September. Not surprisingly, the playwright ignores the caveat against directing one's own work by doing that very thing with precision, grace, and joy.

Spates (Antony Eden) is the one human constant throughout the play's four scenes, the first taking place in 1925 and the other three occurring at 20-year intervals after that. The other constant is the setting, a property that starts out as a private estate and then is repurposed over the years as a girls' prep school, a community theater and arts center, and finally as a country inn. While Kevin Jenkins' basic set design does not change over the course of the two-and-a-half hour production, part of the fun is watching the crew rearrange things between scenes while the cast members are offstage changing into appropriate period costumes (also Mr. Jenkins' well-considered design work) before rushing out to take on new roles.

The character of Spates is that of an Everyman, more acted upon than acting to take charge of his own life. He is the calm eye of the storm and a witness to the goings-on about him, whose own life changes direction as the result of his coincidental contacts with the women who cross his path. In the first scene, he is a farm boy, taking on temporary duties as a footman at Kirkbridge Manor at an event to mark the engagement of Lady Cynthia (Laura Matthews) to Captain Ffluke (Laurence Pears). The scene starts off with the light tone of a drawing room comedy, but things go terribly awry after a contretemps between Lady Cynthia's mother (Laura Matthews) and Lord Kirkbridge, the girl's brute of a stepfather (Russell Dixon, who has the lion's share of the scene-stealing roles throughout much of the evening). The mood becomes quite ugly for the members of the family, but things nevertheless turn out well for Spates. He ends the scene on a high note, having received his first proper kiss along with a promise of support to pursue a higher education degree that will put him on a path away from farming and service.

In Scene 2, we are carried forward to 1945. Kirkbridge Manor is now Kirkbridge Manor Preparatory School for Girls, where Antony is working as a teacher. Here he becomes romantically involved with a co-worker, Ursula (Ms. Matthews). The failed central heating system keeps everyone bundled and sneezing and irritable, yet things do manage to get hot and heavy for the couple. The shadow of World War II also hovers in the background, casting a pall over the school's Guy Fawkes celebration. Things do not end well for the lovebirds, causing Antony to depart before the year is up.

The final two scenes are set, respectively, in 1965 and 1985. In the first of these, Antony is working as a general administrator at an arts center, where a ragtag band of actors is preparing for the Christmas pantomime amidst the decade's anti-establishment rage. Again, our hero is a bystander whose life is changed by a chance meeting with one of the women. In the play's final scene, another two decades have passed. Antony, now 77 years old, is back on site, where he has taken on temporary work in post retirement assisting with the management of the property, now a country inn.

A Brief History of Women is not about anything grand and important. But it is a sublimely realized juggling act, in which the seemingly random juxtaposition of the characters turns into a perfectly arranged set of falling dominos. Likewise, the tone moves effortlessly between the wildly comic (none more so than Russell Dixon's turn as the theater director in a rehearsal of the panto) and heartfelt tear-inducing moments, often turning on a dime in unexpected ways. The cast members make these switches with perfect timing under Ayckbourn's detailed and wittily choreographed direction, down to the carefully consistent opening and closing of invisible doors, until everything comes full circle in the end of this lovely play, written and directed by a master of his craft.

A Brief History of Women
Through May 27
Theater A at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street between Park and Madison
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral