Review: ‘A Brief History of Women,’ an Alan Ayckbourn Comedy of Tragedies

Posted May 2, 2018 8:50 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — “As funny as a heart attack,” goes the phrase, and it is generally used to indicate anything but merriment. But a change of context can work wonders with a familiar figure of speech. If you were to say “as funny as a heart attack in an Alan Ayckbourn play,” you would mean that a situation is so painfully, awkwardly sad that it is downright hilarious.

Such a medical emergency does indeed occur toward the end of the first of the four short, interrelated and ultimately affecting sketches that make up Ayckbourn’s “A Brief History of Women,” which opened on Wednesday night at 59E59 Theaters as part of the Brits Off Broadway festival. It is a heart attack that introduces laughter into what has hitherto been a most unpleasant encounter.

A husband and wife have been hurling brutal insults at each other, with every intention of wounding, and it has reached the point where he is about to strike her. Then a second man steps in to intervene, and the husband, an old fellow, abruptly doubles up in pain.

In the frantic moments that follow, as one man’s life seems to be nearing its end, the audience erupts into harsh guffaws, as unexpected and involuntary as belches at a dinner party. After more than half a century in the theater, Ayckbourn clearly still has the power to startle us into the most appropriately inappropriate reactions.

Though calculations vary, “A Brief History of Women” is generally believed to be the 81st play written by the 79-year-old Ayckbourn, whose portfolio brims with sui generis comic masterpieces. This latest offering — first staged last year at the Stephen Joseph Theater in Scarborough, England, where most of Ayckbourn’s work originates — isn’t in the league of top-drawer works like his “The Norman Conquests” and “Absurd Person Singular.”

Directed by its author, “A Brief History of Women” can at times feel as broad and overstated as the children’s Christmas pantomime (in this case, “Jack and the Beanstalk”) that figures crucially in one of the plot lines here. Yet just when you start to think that the old master is on autopilot, he turns a sharp corner with a wrench that surprises you into spontaneous tears or giggles or, as often as not, both.

Though its overweening title might suggest otherwise, “A Brief History of Women” is neither feminist nor misogynist in its viewpoint. It might better be called “A Brief History of a House,” since each of its scenes take place, over six decades, in one of those stately piles that once served as seats of power for the British aristocracy.

That is still the function of this estate, Kirkbridge Manor in the opening scene, set in 1925. But through some metamorphic magic conducted by stage hands in full view of the audience, this grand “Downton Abbey”-style home is transformed into a girls’ school of 1945; an arts center of 1965; and finally the Kirkbridge Manor Hotel, which takes place in 1985. (Kevin Jenkins designed the time-capsule set and costumes.)

You will also find one anchoring central character, at different ages, on view throughout, though often nearly invisible. His name is Anthony Spates (played by Antony Eden), and his changing roles correspond to the changing times and scenery.

While this production’s other five cast members deftly assume a flamboyant variety of parts, Eden remains a compellingly still center amid social flux and emotional frenzy. He exudes an open-eyed combination of tentative hope and wariness that makes him the perfect Ayckbourn hero-by-default (and all Ayckbourn’s heroes are by default) and observer.

Spates evolves from a footman of the 1920s, to a schoolteacher, to a public arts administrator, to — in the circle-closing final scene — a part-time hotel manager. In each capacity this unexceptional, gentle and rather passive man is beholden to the kindness of women, who prove to be the fairer sex in more ways than one, and ultimately the stronger as well.

As social commentary “A Brief History” isn’t all that enlightening, though it’s clear that Ayckbourn is on the side of the angels (i.e. the play’s often-put-upon females) throughout. The show’s first scene, in particular, is didactically blunt in its discussion of women’s rights, or the lack thereof.

Yet each of the play’s chapters has moments that are classic Ayckbourn in their comic sadness, reminding us of this playwright’s affinity for the modern theater’s greatest psychologist of the human paradox, Anton Chekhov. (The parallels feel even clearer when you realize that Russian productions tend to emphasize the farcical aspects of Chekhov more than English-speaking versions do.)

Ayckbourn’s enduring and infectious affection for theater permeates every scene. (Note, especially, the use he makes of doors that shut out the sound of conversation.) A correspondingly gleeful love of craft animates each ensemble member.

They include Russell Dixon (having a high old time in an assortment of wheezy roles that include an amateur theater director), Frances Marshall, Laura Matthews, Laurence Pears and Louise Shuttleworth. The women, appropriately, have the richer parts, and these actresses revel in the eccentric bravery of their most fully developed roles.

You should know that in addition to the aforementioned heart attack, “A Brief History” features a more (how to put this?) uncommon, though equally dangerous, life-threatening situation, which is as funny as it is far-fetched. (Spoiler: It involves fireworks.)

Conversely, the second half of “A Brief History” features an absolutely heart-rending moment that sounds as if it should be merely silly. It involves two people pretending to be a dancing cow. Be warned: It is likely to induce stifled sobs in even hard-bitten stoics.

Production Notes:

'A Brief History of Women'

Through May 27 at 59E59, Manhattan; 212-279-4200, 59e59.org. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes.

Written and directed by Alan Ayckbourn; associate director, Lotte Wakeham; sets and costumes by Kevin Jenkins; lighting by Jason Taylor; composer, Simon Slater; stage manager, Veronica Aglow. Presented by 59E59 Theaters for Brits Off Broadway.

Cast: Antony Eden, Russell Dixon, Frances Marshall, Laura Matthews, Laurence Pears and Louise Shuttleworth.