What would you say if I told you that the most genuinely moving moment on stage this season happens between two people pretending to be the front and back ends of a cow?
OK, maybe it’s the second most genuinely moving moment. (I still get choked up when I think about Tony Shalhoub and Katrina Lenk conducting an imaginary orchestra in The Band’s Visit.)
Still, the cow scene in Alan Ayckbourn’s A Brief History of Women at Off Broadway’s 59E59 took me genuinely by surprise. After she loses her partner, actress Gillian (Louise Shuttleworth), who’s playing half a cow in a Christmas panto, enlists charming but awkward arts-center admin Tony (Antony Eden, perfectly unassuming) in an impromptu dance rehearsal. “Come on! Grab my waist!” she entreats, before showing him a few basic steps. “And—left to the side—right to the side—left forward, left back—right forward—right back, and kick!” It’s hardly A Cattle Line, but it’s indescribably charming in its simplicity.
As a card-carrying Ayckbourn fan, I’ll tell you that any play of his, especially a new one, is a gift and an all-too-rare treat. (Thank goodness for 59E59’s Brits Off Broadway series, which imports his productions from the Stephen Joseph Theatre in North Yorkshire, England, every few years!) That said, A Brief History of Women, the 81st play from the 79-year-old British author, for those of you keeping track, lacks some of the author’s usual substance, though certainly none of his trademark style. While he has, per usual, landed on a clever conceit—following a single character, Tony, through six decades in the same house (actually, house–turned–school–turned–arts center–turned–hotel)—Ayckbourn takes his title a bit too literally. The female characters get short shrift—and that’s not like him at all.
Granted, Tony is the central character. But his life and personality are shaped by all the women around him. When we first meet him at Kirkbridge Manor, in 1925, he’s known only by his last name, Spates; he’s a servant, proffering gin sours—or Bee’s Knees, as the Prohibition-era cocktail was known—to Mrs. Reginald Ffluke (Shuttleworth) and “milady” Caroline Kirkbridge (Frances Marshall) while milady’s pig of a husband, Lord Edward (Ayckbourn vet Russell Dixon), rants and raves in the study. (“First they’re given the vote, what the hell’s next? I’ll tell you what’s next. Socialism. That’s what comes next. Followed closely by Armageddon, mark my words.” And that’s perhaps the nicest thing Edward has to say about what he deems the inferior sex.)
Twenty years later, in scene 2—Spates, now Mr. Anthony Spates, is still working at Kirkbridge, but it’s now a prep school—the women become mere background players: an emotionally unbalanced girlfriend/history teacher (Laura Matthews), a snooty French teacher (Marshall), and a gossipy math teacher (Shuttleworth). Another 20 years on, Kirkbridge becomes an arts center—where it’s hosting a very amateur Jack and the Beanstalk—and Tony Spates connects with Gillian. But apart from their choreographed meet-cute, the scene-stealing actor-director Dennis (Dixon) seems to get the bulk of the stage time. The final scene, set in 1985, at Kirkbridge Manor Hotel, is meant to bring the now-77-year-old Anthony Spates full-circle. Yet a reunion with an influential woman from his past is painfully, well, brief.
Perhaps the 60-year period—the longest Ayckbourn, who enjoys tinkering with time in his works, has ever employed—ultimately proved too restrictive. It’s tough to dig deep—and Ayckbourn is the deepest comedic playwright you’ll ever encounter—when you’re traversing such wide terrain.
A Brief History of Women opened May 2, 2018, and runs through May 27. Tickets and information: 59e59.org