Ayckbourn still seeks American auds

The disparity is unique: No other British playwright is so feted at home and so unrecognized in the U.S.

Alan Ayckbourn at one point had five comedies running concurrently in the West End, has written a further 66 plays (plus more than 20 revues and children’s plays) and is enough of a theatrical household name in the U.K. to have been knighted by the queen in 1997. So how come the 68-year-old playwright’s American profile is so low?

The 2005 production of “Private Fears in Public Places” won raves in a limited-engagement New York transfer in the inaugural Brits Off Broadway season, and his work has regularly been played in stock in the U.S. Yet the 17-month run at the Music Box of “Absurd Person Singular” in the mid-1970s is his only Broadway production to have hit paydirt. (The same play was a critical and commercial miss in its 2005 Rialto revival.)

Contrast that with his current British rating. Next September, helmer Matthew Warchus will mount a revival at the Old Vic theater of “The Norman Conquests,” the audaciously interlocked trilogy generally considered Ayckbourn’s comic masterpiece.

Prior to that, in the summer, Ayckbourn will step down as artistic director at the Stephen Joseph Theater in Yorkshire — after a mere 36 years — by helming the world preem of his 71st play, “Life After Beth,” written, it should be pointed out, after he had recovered from a stroke.

Not that illness has stemmed the tide of his output. The play will be accompanied by Ayckbourn’s own stagings of revivals of his 1994 ghost tale “Haunting Julia” (for three men) and his 2002 “Snake in the Grass” (for three women). The same six actors will form the cast of his new play.

First up, however, is the West End revival of “Absurd Person Singular,” arguably Ayckbourn’s finest single play, opening Dec. 11 at the Garrick Theater.

Its producer, Bill Kenwright, has a long association with the writer. He started his career understudying in the 1964 London premiere of Ayckbourn’s sixth title, “Mr. Whatnot.” Kenwright doesn’t profess to have the answer to the U.K./U.S. divide, but he draws a sharp parallel.

“He’s on a par with Neil Simon over here,” says the producer. “I brought over Tony Randall and Jack Klugman in ‘The Odd Couple,’ but the work just doesn’t play in the same way. Particularly in Neil Simon’s later plays, I laugh and I cry and I see the same crafting and diligence as Ayckbourn. It only proves that we speak the same language, but we’re very different countries.”

Ayckbourn’s long-term agent Tom Erhardt, who happens to be an anglicized American, concedes to the link in the trans-Atlantic fortunes of the two writers. But he delineates the difference between them.

“Neil Simon writes extremely funny one-liners,” offers Erhardt. “But Alan doesn’t write one-liners. His comedy is character-driven. His writing is like George Bernard Shaw or Noel Coward but in a lower-class stratum.”

Erhardt also points out that although the work is very accessible, Ayckbourn’s plays are driven by almost mathematical logic. His “Intimate Exchanges” cycle, for instance, consists of eight interlocking full-length plays that all open with the same scene and feature 10 characters played by the same two actors.

“Absurd Person Singular” is typically tightly and neatly structured. The three acts take place among three couples at three successive Christmas Eve parties. By the end of the acutely funny and painful play, everyone’s social standing has changed dramatically.

“People raise their eyebrows at this because it’s not his reputation at all, but I think he’s a political writer,” says vet helmer Alan Strachan, director of the upcoming revival. “Not in the sense of taking sides and backing causes, but politics are part of the fabric of his world.”

Strachan argues also that the play is extraordinarily prescient.

“The character of Sidney, an entrepreneur who rises to the top, is a pre-echo of the Margaret Thatcher era, a period ruled by self-interest,” he explains. “That may be one reason why mainstream American audiences don’t plug into the work — that undertow in the plays doesn’t reach them.”

Strachan’s other theory revolves around casting. Particularly during his 1970s and ’80s peak, Ayckbourn’s name was a box office guarantee in Britain. That meant producers didn’t have to rely on star casting. Indeed, appearances in “The Norman Conquests” turned relative unknowns Felicity Kendall, Penelope Keith and Michael Gambon into stars.

But producers wanted known quantities when the trilogy played Broadway.

“Richard Benjamin and Paula Prentiss wanted to be seen as the stars,” observes Strachan. “But above everything, these are absolutely ensemble plays. You’re not going to do the production — or yourself — any favors by being starry. It will make your work look strained and over-reaching.”

He also believes that the precise and subtle interplay between characters works best not in oversized Broadway houses but within the relative intimacy of smaller venues. As proof, he cites the Manhattan Theater Club productions of “Absent Friends” and “Woman in Mind,” the latter with Stockard Channing.

Back in the 1970s, Peter Hall was the first director to take Ayckbourn into the National Theater repertoire. The British press at the time attacked him for spending public money on so commercially successful a dramatist. Hall said he believed Ayckbourn to be one of just three playwrights who would be remembered and performed a hundred years hence.

Maybe the current slew of productions will persuade American producers that Ayckbourn’s reputation shouldn’t rest entirely at home.

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