The seemingly random intersections between disparate individuals, each dealing with his own emotional issues, has become overly familiar terrain in American indie movies. But what is often trite and prosaic in one medium can be unexpectedly affecting in another. Veteran British playwright Alan Ayckbourn’s “Private Fears in Public Places” is a delicately crafted work that shows a master’s skill in its graceful Chekhovian movement between comedy and melancholy. As intrinsically English as the characters are (excepting one Scot), the play’s insights into the solitude behind ordinary existence are universal, its refusal to become maudlin entirely refreshing.
Ayckbourn has close to 70 produced plays under his belt, and his comedies of middle-class manners are such a fixture at home, on both regional stages and the West End, that British theatergoers might be forgiven for feeling a certain ennui.
His plays appear in New York far less frequently, making the U.S. bow of his Scarborough rep company in the Brits Off Broadway season something of an event. And while the playwright’s prolific output perhaps inevitably resulted in works of varying quality over recent years, “Private Fears” shows that Ayckbourn’s most vital gifts are undimmed, making the production especially welcome.
Peeling back the comic observations of its characters to reveal layers of insecurity, pain and longing, the play’s structure is both intricate and simple — a duality echoed in its design. Pip Leckenby’s Ikea-generic, minimal set divides the stage into a real estate office, a kitchen, a hotel bar, a cafe and a living room, around which lighting designer Mick Hughes and director Ayckbourn meticulously steer attention as those and other distinct London environments are inhabited.
The uniformly accomplished ensemble of six has the tight, organic-unit feel of a Mike Leigh company and clearly has a lock on the playwright’s most subtle nuances of character. No matter how pathetic these emotional casualties of urban life may seem, the director and actors invest them all with touching dignity, humanity and humor.
The arbitrary axis of the group is Stewart (Paul Kemp), a real estate agent so meek and unassuming he’ll be unrecognizable to New Yorkers accustomed to the pushiest property brokers on the planet. Among his clients is a couple engaged to be married, snooty Nicola (Melanie Gutteridge) and Dan (Paul Thornley), an ex-Army officer recently discharged under murky circumstances. As Nicola tries valiantly to ignore the signs of waning affection between herself and her fiance, Dan seeks solace in Scotch at a swanky hotel, where bartender Ambrose (Adrian McLoughlin) absorbs his drunken prattle with the selfless patience common to his profession.
Back in the real estate office, Stewart engages in some hesitant flirtation with colleague Charlotte (Alexandra Mathie), a prim Scottish fundamentalist Christian who’s prey to temptations of the flesh. The nature of their relationship threatens to change when she lends Stewart a video of an inspirational music program (a funny dig at the kind of monumentally dull TV fare exclusive to the BBC), which has been taped over porn. The shocked response that plays across Kemp’s face is priceless when the end-of-program announcement and brief static are followed by groaning and humping to cheesy Muzak.
Outside office hours, Charlotte works part-time as a caregiver to the infirm father of Ambrose, who has his own sorrowful secret. The streams of vulgar abuse hurled by the irascible old man make him an especially vivid offstage presence, tamed by Charlotte in an unexpected way.
Final character is Stewart’s plain-Jane sister Imogen (Sarah Moyle), whose supposed nights out with the girls from the office are really appointments arranged through personal ads, with dates who never show up.
While the one-act play feels a fraction overlong, Ayckbourn fluidly weaves the threads together to show how his characters skim the surfaces of each other’s lives, often planting the hopeful seeds of a more durable connection before returning to somber reality.
But as ostensibly downbeat as the outcomes are, the writer-director’s gentle, compassionate touch brings a sweet sadness to the lonely lives, while he remains unmistakably British in his disdain for sentimentality.
There’s not an off note in the impeccable cast. Brittle and bossy, seemingly in control at first, Gutteridge poignantly exposes the hollow sense of loss and regret Nicola feels, while Thornley disguises Dan’s hunger for warmth behind the exterior of a silly booze-sodden toff.
With her shlubby posture, unsophisticated appearance and inane chirpiness, Moyle’s Imogen is a heart-rending figure, her desperation for a more exciting life manifested in her choice of Scarlet as a dating alias. Her drunken scenes, after imprudent cocktail consumption, are hilarious. Kemp is a similar delight as mousy, unfailingly cordial Stewart, whose misreading of Charlotte’s signals leads to an awkward blunder and a painfully uneasy formal apology.
Mathie’s mix of piety and wickedness is superbly balanced in her unnerving silences and beatific smiles, and in the mischievous slyness with which she offers the titillating tapes.
While Ambrose is the least showy role, McLoughlin’s subdued work is perhaps the most impressive, quietly showing how something true and honest can be wrought from a performance with almost no visible trace of acting.
Even without such an unexpectedly satisfying play, this fine company’s brief New York stint would be something to celebrate.