Alan Ayckbourn’s wit and playful imagination enliven “Communicating Doors,” a madcap jigsaw puzzle that blends sex, time travel, mystery and murder. The plot twists are intermittently entertaining, but the show — despite pointedly pronounced British accents from the cast — doesn’t work comfortably in this American transplant. Lunatic farce needs a certain rapid, hysterical rhythm, and Barry Philips’ direction is overly deliberate, lingering on expository scenes that make us think too much and start noticing holes in the story.
The situation appears promising when dominatrix Poopay (Amy Chaffee) pops up at a London hotel in 2022, sporting black leather, fishnet stockings and stiletto heels, to service Reece (Alan Brooks), an elderly, ailing client. Reece, it turns out, takes no interest in whips, chains or S&M. He wants Poopay to witness a document in which he confesses to the murder of two former wives. Also on the scene is Reece’s hulking, snarling business partner, Julian (Michael Carr). When Julian attempts to kill Poopay, she escapes through a closet and finds herself transported 20 years back in time.
Enter Ruella (Lisa Pelikan), second of Reece’s murdered spouses.
After an awkward and wordy exchange, Poopay manages to alert Ruella to her potential danger, and the two set out to save their own skins and warn Reece’s first wife Jessica (Rachael Lyerla) about her impending doom. From there, it’s a matter of scurrying back and forth through closets and hotel rooms in 1982, 2002 and 2022. What partially redeems the material is Ayckbourn’s denouement, which doesn’t follow the timeworn cliche of “you can’t change fate” and provides a convoluted but satisfying resolution.
Chaffee’s dimwitted dominatrix is meant to set the evening’s tone, but she seems more schoolgirl than “specialist sexual consultant.”
Without the underlying street toughness, nothing explains why she chose this lurid occupation, and later on, she’s too helpless and weak, crying, “I can’t cope with any of this.” Poopay is a role that needs camping up or cartoon mannerisms, and Chaffee plays her straight, muffling laughs in a misguided effort to build a believable, sympathetic character.
Fortunately, Pelikan’s Ruella gives the situations a potent charge. Strong, determined, logical, she’s clearly a woman capable of solving a complex murder mystery, and you never doubt her ability to outsmart the fiend planning her demise. If there’s an occasional tendency to overreact and place italics on every other word, she compensates with class, charisma and charm.
Lyerla comprehends the nuances of British farce and adds a light touch, switching skillfully from shocked, naive bride to sophisticate.
Carr is competent but conventional as the homicidal Julian. Alan Brooks, architect of the chicanery, manages to invest his far-fetched character with a suggestion of humanity. Ron Bottitta, as a befuddled house detective, rises above his stock role with welcome comic reactions.
Andrew Deppen’s set is handsome, although it alters so little, there’s minimal sense of time change, nor does Jeremy Pivnick’s lighting sufficiently indicate differences of time or era. Deb Millison’s dominatrix costume is distractingly ill-fitting, though her baby blue lingerie enhances Lyerla’s appeal. More dramatically valid is Ben Rottman’s sound, featuring ominous musical cues that add tension.