A half-baked farce and a half-baked thriller don’t add up to a very satisfying whole in “Communicating Doors.” The big mystery is why so much talent has been lavished on this pleasant but negligible piece of West End fluff, now at the Variety Arts Theater Off Broadway. Frightfully prolific English playwright Alan Ayckbourn’s conceit in his 49th play has a pair of mixed-class heroines zapping back and forth in time to foil their own murders, a device that promises more intriguing twists than it delivers, despite stylish comic performances by Mary-Louise Parker and Patricia Hodges.
Our heroine of the lower orders is Poopay (Parker), a workaday dominatrix whose monotone recitation of wicked commands in a guttersnipe accent gets the play off to a cute start. In a posh hotel suite in London, 2018, Poopay has been procured by the geriatric and ailing Reece (Tom Beckett), not to hasten his end in a blissful burst of pain but to formally witness a deathbed confession that implicates his evil business partner Julian (Gerrit Graham) in the murders of not one but two of Reece’s wives, decades prior. (Why a wealthy businessman, however unwell, would need an utter stranger to perform such a function is one of many contrivances not to be examined too closely.)
Poopay, perplexed, tries to make a quick exit after signing on the dotted line, but is snared by Julian. Fleeing from his murderous grasp, she leaves the suite through a door that should lead to a closet, as we are told repeatedly, but in fact propels her back through time, with the aid of a spooky burst of music from John Gromada and a mechanically spinning pair of doors. She finds herself in the same suite, 20 years before, face to face with the second Mrs. Reece, Ruella (Patricia Hodges), aka victim No. 2.
With the occasional aid of the bumbling house detective, played with some sly affection for the charms of stock characters by David McCallum, this mismatched pair sets about mastering the arts of time travel and killer-catching, as the rapport between them grows from frost across the social divide to sisterly affection. (The play ends with a vision of history rewritten that’s sentimental in a uniquely English way — happiness, it seems, is having the proper accent.)
Ayckbourn’s autopilot cleverness and a host of carefully explained complications sustain the play until about the midpoint, when inspiration obviously flags and suddenly it’s ditsy farce time, with our heroines being caught in what look to be compromising positions and the straight-laced detective making dirty-minded English schoolboy cracks about “lesbianic relationships.”
There is much sarcastic riposting from Hodges, who tosses off lines like “Do shut up, you stupid man!” with the requisite upper-crust English hauteur. She gives an engaging performance that makes great use of her rail-thin physical elan and frothy head of blond curls, while Parker employs her own deadpan manner to add a few quirks to her character.
On the thrills front, the play is a washout. Graham doesn’t make a particularly imposing villain — he’s more avuncular than malevolent — and the play’s one big scare is so clumsily and laboriously set up, it’s hard to believe anyone in the audience finds it a shocker.
The middle-brow material has been served up in respectfully straightforward style by a creative team known for far more adventurous work. Director Christopher Ashley keeps the trains running on time, and can’t be expected to do much more.
The often ingenious designer David Gallo put his ingenuity on ice to create the impeccably plush hotel suite, knowing well that the conventions of both farces and thrillers are best served by a grounding in realistic detail. “Lion King” Tony winner Donald Holder lights the suite with equally uncluttered professionalism, but also provides a haunting image at the close of the first act that’s as scary, and stylish, as anything in the play.