In U.S. & U.K., Much Ado About Ayckbourn

Satire, a glib George S. Kaufman once said, is what closes on Saturday night – an aphorism Alan Ayckbourn has been busy standing on its head for much of the 32 years since his first play.

Arguably this century’s most popular British dramatist (and easily its most prolific), the 51-year-old former actor is on the threshold of his most golden year since 1975, when for a time he had five shows running simultaneously in London.

Two of his vintage pieces open this month in New York: “Absent Friends” (1974) at the Manhattan Theater Club and “Taking Steps” (1979) at the Circle in the Square on Broadway. Both may serve as fresh tests of the theory that the reason Ayckbourn never has hit it big in the U.S. is that Americans never have understood him.

In London, where a revival of “Absurd Person Singular,” one of his biggest (and best) hits, opened last May and is continuing, two newer works are due for local preems, “Invisible Friends” (1990), bowing mid-March in rep for the Royal National Theater, and “Revengers’ Comedies” (1989), which producer Michael Codron plans for the West End next fall. As usual, both will be directed by the author.

The prolific Ayckbourn amounts to a cottage industry on which British legit has come to depend. He and Shakespeare are among the most produced authors on British community rep stages, and scarcely a year passes without a new Ayckbourn comedy in London. Last year it was “Man Of The Moment,” and the year before a techno-fantasy called “Henceforward.” Both were prizewinners in the annual London Evening Standard Drama Awards.

Ayckbourn’s popularity also has grown on the Continent and, of all places, Japan, and he says he gets a “healthy income” from U.S. “heartland” productions. New York, he admits, still is a problem, though he thinks he’s starting to lick it, at least Off Broadway, where the Manhattan Theater Club has also produced his “Woman In Mind.”

Ayckbourn’s 42nd play, “Wildest Dreams” (about “our attempts to dodge reality”), gets a tryout this May at the 300-seat St. Joseph Theater-in-the-Round in the Yorkshire seaside resort of Scarborough, where Ayckbourn has been artistic factotum since 1960 and where all his stuff is first staged.

He hasn’t written it yet, but he already has a title for his 43rd, “My Very Own Story,” in which he’ll continue (as in “Invisible Friends”) to reach for younger audiences. Ayckbourn calls it “family theater” but says it’s not necessarily meant to be seen by the family as a unit.

Despite obvious differences of style and tone, he has sometimes been tagged the British Neil Simon, a comparison he doesn’t exactly resent but which he believes Simon “wouldn’t like anymore than I do.”

Ayckbourn is happier to be known as the bard of English middle-class angst, which is much nearer the truth. Over the years, a peculiarly Anglo-Saxon pain increasingly merged with the laughs in such works as “Absurd Person,” “The Norman Conquests,” “Bedroom Farce,” “Sisterly Feelings,” “A Chorus Of Disapproval” (recently filmed by Michael Winner) and “Way Upstream,” sometimes with mixed results. “Upstream” was so murderously dark, in fact, that it neglected Ayckbourn’s usual quota of satiric yocks.

To critics who see him as a one-theme writer, Ayckbourn responds that “they’ve probably only seen three or four of the 42” plays, adding that he writes about human relationships, which are “the heart of every good play.”

One of his few outright flops was “Jeeves,” a mid-1970s Andrew Lloyd Webber musical for which Ayckbourn wrote book and lyrics. It was roasted by the critics and closed after a brief West End run. Ayckbourn, who hadn’t worked on a tuner before and hasn’t attempted another since, insists it was a “wonderful experience in retrospect” from which he learned a lot. And he refuses to say “never again.”

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