The prolific Sir Alan Ayckbourn whips up another frothy concoction of middle-class desire, denial and deceit in “Life of Riley,” in which a suburban Don Juan inspires three very different women to question their romantic choices. However familiar the setup and theme, the rueful dramedy is receiving a sturdy, most enjoyable U.S. premiere production at the Old Globe.
The master has offered similar shaggy, incorrigible seducers before, notably in his peerless “The Norman Conquests.” But schoolteacher George Riley, the town’s “hippie Peter Pan,” as he’s described, never appears, his presence indicated by blasts of offstage stadium rock to indicate his impact on his friends.
And soon he’ll be gone from the stage forever, according to doctor Colin (Colin McPhillamy) – six months at most.
His circle is aghast, but of course the joke is how quickly George’s diagnosis brings out their rampant narcissism. Best friend Jack (Ray Chambers), himself a minor league “playa,” is already mourning his role model’s loss, while Colin absently adjusts his always-off grandfather clocks to wonder whether time has passed him by.
Their discontented spouses, meanwhile, snag George a role in the local community theater production, giving Tamsin (Dana Green) some juicy love scenes in response to Jack’s too-obvious adultery, and Colin’s wife, Kathryn (Henny Russell), a chance to consider whether George can stir up some old embers. (Amusingly for those in the know, the play they’re rehearsing is Ayckbourn’s own “Relatively Speaking,” a classic of extramarital mishaps.)
And on the sidelines is George’s wife, Monica (Nisi Sturgis), who inconveniently ran off with sobersided farmer Simeon (David Bishins) just in time to hear her husband’s bell toll.
All the onstage characters represent types Ayckbourn has wrestled with before – Tamsin’s blowsy sophisticate, Kathryn’s starchy matron, Colin’s befuddled professional man – so “Life of Riley” may seem freshest to those new to his work. Helmer Richard Seer nicely milks the passive aggression seething among nominally loving friends, though he may allow some of their confrontations to come to a boil too quickly.
Happily, Seer’s players invest their roles with vitality. Russell and McPhillamy, in particular, bring unexpected poignancy to a marriage seemingly stuck in an endless rut until circumstances prompt reassessment.
Since Ayckbourn writes for a theater-in-the-round back home, his work fits seamlessly into the Old Globe’s renovated arena space, and designer Robert Morgan’s four garden locales wordlessly, wittily convey class and character. Jack and Tamsin’s modish patio furniture smugly sits catty-corner from the beat-up old tire on Simeon’s acreage, and a cornucopia of varied but dismally cared-for plants attests to both George’s love of life and his carelessness in pursuing it.