Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Alan Ayckbourn's Communicating Doors is a Tricky Conundrum

Also see Richard's reviews of Into the Woods
and Southern Baptist Sissies

Marin Theatre Company closes its current season with Alan Ayckbourn's Communicating Doors. I fashion myself an Ayckbourn aficionado and I have seen about twenty of his plays performed in the West End and Scarborough on the Yorkshire coast. I believe this playwright is the most prolific English dramatist since Shakespeare. He has written over sixty plays in his lifetime. Many critics believe that only Chekhov surpasses him in his presentation of pain and desperation through laughter. However, that laughter is always filled with compassion.

Ayckbourn's plays are not great successes in America and as a result there has been a dearth of productions of his plays in this country. Many of his plays don't work comfortably when they are transplanted here. Also, American actors sometimes have difficulty with the accents and timing of the pieces. However, on the other side of coin, British actors have difficulty performing Neil Simon's plays in the UK. The very talented cast at Marin Theatre performs very well in this two and a half hour sci-fi thriller comedy.

Communicating Doors premiered in the playwright's theatre in Scarborough in 1995. It transferred to the Gielgud Theatre in the fall of that year where it won the Best Play of 1996 award from the Writer's Guild of Britain. It was also nominated for best play by the Olivier and Moliere committees. The play was a smash hit in London and I remember seeing it during the fall of 1995. I was very impressed with the cleverness of this time travel mystery.

Doors had a brief run Off Broadway and it has played in various regional cities in this country. It is a difficult play to produce since the actors must have that special Ayckbourn technique in that they must take this comedy seriously. As the great English actor and manager Sir Donald Wolfit said, "Dying is easy. Comedy is hard"

The action takes place in a London five star hotel suite in the year 2024. Dominatrix Poopay (Deborah Taylor), dressed in sporting black leather and leather boots almost to her thighs with stiletto heels, has come to "service" the very elderly, sickly client Reese (Robert Parsons). Reese in not interested in kinky sex but wants Poopay to witness a document in which he confesses to helping to murder his two former wives. He also wants her to take the document to the police.

Reese has his business partner Julian (Charles Dean) traveling and caring for him. Julian gets wind of the subterfuge and attempts to kill Poopay to retrieve the secret document since he is implicated in the confession as the killer of the second wife. Poopay escapes through a closet door and finds herself in 2004. She meets the second wife Ruella (Anne Darragh) just before she is about to be killed. The dominatrix finally convinces Ruella of the danger and these two set out to save themselves and warn Reese's first wife Jessica (Cassie Beck) who is in 1984. Confusing, yet somehow it all jells in a fast paced mayhem of thrills and humor. The ending is so convoluted that I wont disclose it.

Dan Hiatt (recently completed the long run of Noises Off), as the perplexed house detective Harold in the 1984 and 2004 scenes, is perfect with just the right accent. He rises above a stock role with wonderful comic reactions.

Anne Darragh (Okra, Sex Habits of American Wives and Ted Kaczynski) as the second wife Ruella gives the circumstances an effective charge. She is strong minded, indomitable and very logical. She also sports an excellent British accent. Cassie Beck (All My Sons at TheatreWorks) is excellent as the first wife Jessica. She gets the degrees of a British farce and is very adroit in changing various moods, from immature bride to sophisticated woman of the world.

Deborah Taylor (The Pavilion) plays the "specialist sexual consultant" Poopay. She has a certain street smartness about her as the dominatrix. There are moments when she rushes her British accent which makes it hard for the audience to understand. She plays the role not for laughs but to gain sympathy for her plight from the audience. However, when she gains more confidence in the role during the coming weeks, she will be fine.

Charles Dean (Misalliance and 120 plays in his 30 year history) and Robert Parsons (Visions of Kerouac and Pal Joey) both have good supporting roles. Dean is competent as the homicidal Julian with a proper British accent. Parsons as the elderly Reese is good in a smaller role.

Kent Dorsey's (New York set designer) set is very good and reflects a hotel suite in a five star hotel. The set has been changed from the original London production, which had two sets on the Gielgud stage with the communicating door in the center. On the Marin set, this has been changed to a closet door on the extreme left side that whirls around and the character enters the same set in a different time period. The only difference in the time periods is the lighting by York Kennedy. In the future, the designer uses a blue fluorescent along the bottom of the stage and green lights flashing through the lace curtains of the set.

Lee Sankowich's direction is good and he recognizes that this kind of comedy is very hard for the American audiences. The scene with the three women on the balcony in the second act becomes much too long and too farcical but it does suit the American taste for some broad comedy. Norman Kern's sound adds a good dramatic effect that features menacing musical clues that might have come from Psycho, adding to the tension.

Communicating Doors continues through June 13 at the Marin Theatre, 397 Miller Ave, Mill Valley. For tickets call 415-388-5208 or visit

The 2004-2005 season opens on September 9th with the world premiere of Beggar's Holiday, written by Dale Wasserman, with music by Duke Ellington and lyrics by John Latouche and Dale Wassermann.

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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