Alan Ayckbourn’s 46th play, receiving its North American premiere during the fifth biennial Intl. Theater Festival of Chicago, is a cleverly conceived but overly plotted work. As it now plays, Ayckbourn’s excessively complicated and lengthy script is likely to frustrate audiences long before they reach the potentially satisfying conclusion of “Communicating Doors.”
The story begins in Ayckbourn’s classic comedic fashion, in the year 2014, with the arrival at a ritzy London hotel suite of Poopay (Adie Allen), a platinum blond dominatrix decked out in patent leather regalia.
Poopay has been summoned not to provide her usual sexual services, but rather to witness the written confession of evil deeds committed by dying financier Reece (John Hudson) and his villainous assistant, Julian (Richard Durden). Among the details that Reece reveals in the wordy, expositional opening scene is the unsettling news that he masterminded the murder of his two wives, Ruella and Jessica.
Growing more fearful of the situation in which she has landed, Poopay attempts an escape but instead winds up traveling back in time 20 years to the same London hotel suite, where she discovers Ruella (Liz Crowther) on the eve of what was to have been her murder.
When Poopay figures out what has happened and explains to Ruella that her own death is imminent, the two women team up and try to change the apparent course of history through an elaborate scheme that sends both women backward and forward in time. Eventually Reece’s first wife, Jessica (Sara Markland), is dragged into the story along with Harold, an amusing hotel security chief beautifully played by Nick Stringer.
The plot of “Communicating Doors” grows increasingly convoluted as the women’s desire to avert murder and mayhem grows more determined. Because so much time and energy is expended playing out and pulling together the elaborate plot threads, Ayckbourn isn’t able satisfactorily to develop the characters who drive the story. So the play’s rather touching conclusion — a testament to well-meaning souls who take it upon themselves to make the world a better place — is robbed of most of its impact, and the evening seems more for naught than it should.
Along the way, Ayckbourn as director gives in too much to his urge to milk the humor in several scenes. Well into the second act, in particular, he unnecessarily drags out an extended farcical rescue attempt on a hotel balcony.
But the performances can’t be faulted. Allen plays the dominatrix with just the right mix of bravado and sweetness, while Crowther and Markland bring plenty of focused energy to the roles of the two wives. Durden is appropriately icy as Reece’s scheming sidekick. Hudson doesn’t have much to work with in the role of the repentant Reece, but manages nonetheless to make his presence felt.
Designer Roger Glossop’s hotel suite looks suitably plush, but Mick Hughes’ lighting tends toward the pedestrian. John Pattison’s music sounds like something from a cheap horror movie.