With a title like Arrivals & Departures, it’s not surprising that Alan Ayckbourn’s newest play is set in a train station. What is surprising in the British playwright emeritus’ latest work is that the sea of people bustling about on the railway platform are actors – not real ones (which they are, of course: the splendid Ayckbourn Ensemble from the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, England) – but rather members of a military unit pretending to be those mums and boyfriends and tourists running to make their trains or scanning the crowd for a loved one. That they aren’t who they seem to be provides a fitting metaphor for this tragicomic reflection on the unreliability of appearances.
The theme runs over even into the construction of the play. At 75 years old and with as many plays to his name, including hits like Absurd Person Singular, Relatively Speaking and The Norman Conquests, the master of the British comedy of manners is working with far more serious material here than what is his typical trade. Violence, cruelty and dark secrets abound in this newest piece but that only makes it harder to say exactly what kind of a play this is that blends genre and overlaps stories, while building from a typically Ayckbournian, farcical premise.
That comic foundation is laid in the play’s opener with those fake travelers. Pushing obviously lifeless baby dolls in strollers and trailing impossibly featherweight suitcases, these are the clearly unmotivated members of the Strategic Simulated Distractional Operations Unit (SSDO), deployed to set a diversion that will trap a dangerous criminal who is expected to disembark at the station at any moment.
But what appears to be one story gradually morphs into another, and then another again. Enter Ez, a wary soldier awaiting court marshaling but sent to “babysit” the only man who can identify the criminal. Enter Barry, that key witness.
As Ez is quick to remind Barry after only a few moments together, these two lost souls have “nothing at all in common.” But that’s a question of seeing, Ayckbourn shows us, spiraling Ez’s and Barry’s tales around and through one another, double helix-like, so that their undulations have a familiar way of echoing each other.
When she was still Esme and just a girl, Ez lost her father to war. Since then she has been tamping down her pain through denial and the harsh discipline of a soldier’s life. Her best defense strategy is to flee any kind of relationship, including a promising love affair with a fellow officer. But when he won’t wait for her anymore, a crime ensues, bringing her into the path of Barry.
When it does, at the train station, her back story unfolds in flashbacks every time her mind wanders from the task at hand. There is Esme at 10, 15, 18, and finally just “Ez.” There is her mom and her mom’s new boyfriend. There is Rob, her fiancee and then Rob’s parents, in a heated exchange. But there is always Ez, in successive shades of despair and frustration.
As skittish, silent and wounded as she is (played with a sleeve-tugging, eyes-averted, adolescent anger by Elizabeth Boag), Barry is her total opposite: jocular, garrulous and preternaturally good-natured, this Yorkshire traffic warden (a pitch-perfect, utterly beguiling Kim Wall) is unselfconscious to a fault. He can chatter about the weather or his marriage as if on cue, he laughs at his own jokes and he needs no help whatsoever carrying on a full-blown conversation by himself. All of that is a good thing because Ez, hiding behind her role as his emotionless bodyguard, is lost in her own story.
However, Ayckbourn has another tale up his sleeve, and it’s Barry’s. If appearances are deceiving enough for Ayckbourn to conceive a play on the theme, poor Barry could write a bildungsroman on the same topic, drawing just from his own experiences. Yorkshire salt of the earth, Barry has been trodden into the dirt by the heels of so many “good folk,” he ought to be a bloodied mess but, unlike Ez, who has developed a tortoise-hard shell, he is perennially ready to pop back up for more. Ayckbourn constructs a touching but cruel commentary on the ability of human beings to hurt each other and themselves – from spite or spurning or “cynicism,” according to Barry – with these two repelling magnets: surely the loneliest characters Ayckbourn has ever written.
The 11-member Ensemble is wonderfully versatile and supple in all the slapstick, poignant, bittersweet roles the playwright (who also directs) can throw at them. Doubling and tripling parts spanning past and present, they epitomize British character acting at its best and bring the multiple narratives to life from the mostly bare set. Russell Dixon, as Jess, Barry’s drunken father-in-law, is a highlight of the evening, although Jess is on stage for no more than 5 minutes. As Quentin, the SSDO’s overzealous captain, Bill Champion leads the rest of the cast though the “diversion” scenes with equal parts nutty cheerleader and drill sergeant. But Wall’s Barry is the show’s hands-down star, from his incomparably expressive gestures and facial tics to his genuine heart. Wall’s performance turns the gullible country mouse into a gigantic hero for anyone who cares about people and who still believes in love and trust and integrity.
The Ayckbourn Ensemble settles into 59E59 for a month of performances running in repertory, as part of the annual “Brits Off Broadway” springtime series. After Arrivals & Departures, the two short comedies of Farcicals will need no explaining. Both shows make their world premieres here. The bill also features Time of My Life, written in 1992.
In Arrivals & Departures, the train does arrive and the “actors” at last depart, but in a world that sometimes seems to reserve only the most biting scorn for the everyman, the kindness of strangers proves to be the warmest of all, even if, for Ez and Barry, it is also the most fleeting.