“We mustn’t get fun muddled up with life,” Hazel Inchbridge (Brenda Blethyn) chirpily opines near the start of “Wildest Dreams” in one of many priceless moments in Alan Ayckbourn’s 42nd play. But when, in this dramatist’s canon, have the two ever had much to do with each other? These days, the news about Ayckbourn is not that his plays are getting darker but that humor finds its way in at all. But that’s the singular achievement of this altogether singular playwright, whose new play embraces child abuse, insanity, incest and multiple strokes and still swings an audience between wild laughter and a sustained, shocked gasp.
Both responses arrive regularly, and sometimes simultaneously, in this play, and its difficulties for an audience lend it much better to the subsidized Royal Shakespeare Company than to the commercial West End, where Ayckbourn’s last two plays flopped.
At the outset, the wonderfully named Inchbridges are a typically besieged Ayckbourn couple lost in a middle-class malaise, who host the evenings of games, Dungeons and Dragons style, that shape the play. By evening’s end, the game has lost its allure, and Hazel has lost her mind. Crawling on the floor and sucking her thumb, she has become one of the “little people” she once liked to play, responding to her husband Stanley (Barry McCarthy) with a manic cackle at his overt agony caused by a pinched nerve.
The disintegration of the Inchbridges’ marriage is one of three parallel stories traced by the play, which brings its characters together for sessions of game-playing empowerment only to send the players back into mostly sad, no less fantasy-driven lives.
The teenage Warren (Gary Whitaker) could be a candidate for Cambridge, but he’s too busy preparing for life as an alien and imprisoning his mother within a “force field” in her room on Christmas until he can complete his wished-for transformation.
The quietest player, Rick (Jenna Russell), undergoes a transformation of her own, coming to terms with her parental abandonment in the arms of her lesbian lover, Marcie (Sophie Thompson), a poshly spoken co-worker whose abusive present complements Rick’s abusive past.
In “Wildest Dreams,” one feels Ayckbourn stretching to the limit the English bourgeoisie’s capacity for cruelty. To that end, we have Austen (Peter Laird), Hazel’s tax inspector brother and an Inchbridge family lodger whose grammatical fastidiousness in the face of Stanley, an English teacher, doesn’t exempt him from a scalding charge of incest. (In context, his stroke-plagued decline seems like divine retribution.)
And in a plot strand more evocative of Edward Bond or Mike Leigh than of Ayckbourn, Rick and Marcie are repeatedly menaced by Marcie’s thuggish husband, Larry (Paul Bentall) — until one of several somewhat improbable turns of plot writes him out of the play.
Larry is the closest this play gets to the Evil writ large — which has obsessed Ayckbourn in recent plays like “The Revengers’ Comedies.” Elsewhere, his characters this time around are less venal than victimized — by false hopes , absent families, and all too present pain.
In one astonishing sequence, Hazel chastises Stanley for the children they never had in what amounts, as written, to a disturbing broadside from a wife to a husband for not having raped her. Later, in Act 2, Marcie rebuffs the smitten Stanley –“I don’t want to hurt your feelings,” she says, “but you’re, well, you’re old”– with a candor that is at once hilarious and wrenching, and the overeager geniality of Thompson (Emma’s younger sister) throughout cuts to the Ayckbourn quick.
So, most crucially, do Blethyn and McCarthy as yet another Ayckbourn couple bonded by indifference that long ago soured into mutual suspicion. At the start, Blethyn’s Hazel talks over, not at, people, readying cups of tea as if that were her Job-like lot. (The early overlapping dialogue is new to Ayckbourn.) But it’s not long before she’s looking on anxiously as Stanley and Marcie roll between them the toy truck that the now infantilized Hazel thinks is hers; and Blethyn, who led the Manhattan Theater Club’s recent staging of this playwright’s “Absent Friends,” elicits pity for a woman as destructive in her way as the battle-ax matriarch in Ayckbourn’s first-rate previous play, “Time of My Life.”
As for McCarthy, “Wildest Dreams” does for this veteran performer what the not-dissimilar part of the Rev. Lionel Espy in David Hare’s “Racing Demon” did for Oliver Ford Davies. Older than the role as written, his Stanley gets a huge laugh correcting his brother-in-law’s misuse of the word “cumulus” for “tumulus” just as he stills the house later, asserting that his wife has found happiness in her regression. “That’s always worth a cry, is life,” he says at one point, but Ayckbourn’s view is more complex.
In “Wildest Dreams,” the author puts an extravagant spin on his own wild journey to those places where humor rears its head before the long nightmare of living can carry on once again.