Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Photo: Ruella (Sandy Campbell, right) uses a 2007 newspaper to try to
convince a skeptical Phoebe (Jessica John, left) that she’s traveled through time in Cygnet Theatre’s Communicating Doors. (Photo: Randy Rovang.)

Cygnet’s Communicating Doors a Delight


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved14

It’s amazing that when British writer Alan Ayckbourn’s works first hit America in the 1970’s, a lot of critics wrote him off as a kind of U.K. version of Neil Simon, funny and entertaining but without depth. Perhaps part of the misunderstanding is that Ayckbourn loves the old-fashioned genre of the hotel farce. But the creative spins he puts on it set him far about the Simon level and mark him as a playwright of satiric power and surprising emotional intensity. In one of his plays, he combined the backstage stories of actors performing a hotel farce with the play they were performing, and even flipped the set round back-to-front between acts to make sure we got the point. In his 1998 play Communicating Doors, through September 23 at the Cygnet Theatre in the College/Rolando area, Ayckbourn once again gooses up the hotel farce by having its characters travel not only in and out of rooms but in and out of time.

The entire play is set in room 647 of the Regal Hotel in an unnamed British city, presumably London (except for a brief bit in act two in which the same set plays a room on a different floor). It begins in the year 2027. S/M dominatrix Poopay (Cygnet resident artist Jessica John) has been summoned to the room to minister to a dying businessman, Reece Wells (Tim West), whose wives Jessica (Brenda Dodge) and Ruella (Sandy Campbell) both died under mysterious circumstances. Supposedly Jessica drowned while swimming and Ruella fell from the balcony of that very hotel room, but Reece tells Poopay — whose real name is Phoebe — they were really murdered by his business partner, Julian Goodman (Manny Fernandes, Cygnet resident artist and also the press contact for this production). While fleeing for her life from Goodman, Poopay hides in a storage room, its doorframe turns — and she emerges in the same room 20 years earlier, confronted by Ruella, still alive and well but scheduled to be killed that very night. Ruella in turn uses the door to go back in time and warn Jessica that she is to be murdered.

Ayckbourn’s time portal allows people to go back in time, but only in 20-year increments and only to the past, not the future. On one level, Connecting Rooms uses the time-travel gimmick to put a fresh spin on the in-and-out-of-doors routines of the classic hotel farce — but Ayckbourn also plays with the so-called “butterfly effect” and his final scenes offer a quite moving alternate future for all three central female characters. Ayckbourn has said Communicating Doors was inspired by J. B. Priestley’s time-travel plays (one of which, Dangerous Corner, was beautifully filmed by RKO in 1934 and could use a local revival), the Back to the Future movies and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho — from which it borrows its Act I curtain, beautifully realized here by director Esther Emery.

Cygnet Theatre is consistently one of San Diego’s strongest community theatres, partly because of their utter fearlessness. They’ve leaped into scripts like My Fair Lady and The Little Foxes most small theatres wouldn’t dare attempt, and while Communicating Doors isn’t on that level or scope, it does call for some major theatrical effects (which is probably why Cygnet previewed this production for a week before its formal opening August 25). Cygnet’s production realizes them perfectly; Nick Fouch’s set (aided by Bonnie Durben’s excellent props) is solid and utterly convincing (the time-portal door is especially impressive) and Emery’s direction taut, fast-paced and devastatingly effective. Cygnet’s press release for the production mentions that Fouch and Emery are husband and wife, and Emery is due to give birth to their first child a week after the production’s official opening. If this is the kind of work they do in a situation like that, may Mr. and Mrs. Fouch have a very large family.

The ensemble cast — another Cygnet specialty — is superb. All of them manage to make it through the play without any audible slips in their British accents. Fernandes is especially effective as a hulking, sinister presence; he, more than any other cast member, is credible as the different ages he plays in the piece’s multiple-time sequence. In previous productions, John has played both nice and nasty girls; here she’s impeccable as the tough dominatrix and the vulnerable woman underneath. (Emery’s only directorial slip-up is the clumsy way John brandishes the whip in the opening scene; she should have got someone from Club X to coach her.) Campbell, making her full-dress acting debut at Cygnet though she’s done a couple of staged readings there before, is probably the strongest of the women, maintaining an enviable sang-froid throughout until she goes over the top (figuratively and literally) towards the end.

The male roles are less significant but still well played. Craig Huizenga is marvelously foofy as a hotel detective who looks (and sounds) like he just stepped out of a Monty Python episode. West is convincing in two quite different versions of his character, though even Cygnet’s talented wig and hair designer Peter Herman can’t turn him into a credible young man. Lighting director Eric Lotze manages the time-portal effect well, and Shulamit Nelson-Spilkin’s costumes — especially the three different dresses John wears — are appropriate and “right.”

If you’ve avoided Alan Ayckbourn all these years because you thought one Neil Simon was enough, get over it. Communicating Doors ably combines farce, romantic comedy, bittersweet drama and even a taste of horror, and Cygnet rises to its challenges and delivers 2 1/2 hours of great entertainment.

Communicating Doors runs through Sunday, September 23 at Cygnet Theatre, 6663 El Cajon Boulevard, Suite N in the College/Rolando area. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 and 7 p.m. Tickets are $31 Saturdays, $29 Fridays and Sunday evenings, $27 Thursdays and Sunday matinees, and can be purchased by phone at (619) 337-1525 or online at www.cygnettheatre.com