Concerning Alan Ayckbourn’s House and Garden , playing simultaneously at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Stage I and next-door at Stage II: They’re certainly a first in theater history. For some peculiar reason, until now, no one has thought of writing two interweaving plays to be performed at the same time by the same cast playing the same characters in adjoining theaters.
You’ll appreciate the technical problems. For one lunatic thing, the actors appearing on Stage I in House have to run like blazes through the corridors backstage to make it on cue for their lines in Garden , which, with luck, is happening on Stage II. Unless, of course, they lose their way in the rush and end up as surprise guest artists at the City Center ballet.
There’s a very intriguing line in Suzan-Lori Parks’ Pulitzer-winning Topdog/Underdog that has fascinated me since I first heard it: “Does the show stop when no one’s watching, or does the show go on?” Thanks to Mr. Ayckbourn, we now have the answer. The show goes on when the show’s next-door.
Both of Mr. Ayckbourn’s plays must start and end at exactly the same time. Intermission must happen at the same time. And it rains in both plays at the same time. Only the audiences in each theater are different. This is due to the fact that we can’t be in two places at the same time. Actors can; actors are peculiar people. They live by entrances and exits, and Mr. Ayckbourn has decided to see what he can do with them.
Now as I see it, if there’s a problem with Mr. Ayckbourn, the Bard of the English middle class, it’s that he might have a little too much time on his hands. Not that it appears that way for a second, considering his phenomenal output as a whole. If there’s been a more prolific dramatist, he must be dead by now. Mr. Ayckbourn is 63, and he’s written some 60 plays. I’m no mathematician, but by my reckoning that’s one play a year since he was 3 years old.
In fact, it’s little known that he wrote his first juvenilia when he was 2, during which time he created two interlocking, now lost plays entitled Crib and Stroller .
Theater scholars have established beyond reasonable doubt that Master Ayckbourn performed his own light drawing-room comedy Crib in his playpen, while his more traditional farce, Stroller , was performed simultaneously by Nanny in the maid’s room next-door.
The intriguing thing is that Nanny also appeared in Crib even as she appeared in Stroller . The 2-year-old Ayckbourn already had the technique down pat. At precisely the right moment, Nanny casually exited Stroller on the line, “I wonder who can be making that noise over yonder hills. I’ll just have a look.” Whereupon, bang on cue, trouper that she was, she entered Crib to deliver the immortal line, “Who da boo-boo?”
Dialogue ensued, until it was time for dear old Nanny to return to the action in Stroller , lest she keep the audience waiting too long. Her exit line was a tease: “It never rains but it pours. Best get the brolly and a stethoscope.” And, in a flash, she crossed the hallway to re-enter Crib with another of Master Ayckbourn’s early sidesplitters: “I don’t care what anyone says. Cucumbers don’t grow on trees.”
I wonder: Do these surviving fragments from the 2-year-old Ayckbourn’s lost masterwork contain the formula for his House and Garden 60 years later? They do. Watching House (which takes place in the drawing room of a Georgian house), if you keep your eye on who exits into the garden, you might be able to guess what’s happening across the way. You might think to yourself, “Is anything better going on in the garden?” It doubles your potential pleasure that way. Giles and Joanna, whose marriage we know has hit trouble, don’t appear much in House . Bet they’re having a right old cat fight in Garden . The alcoholic French movie star who arrives for a boozy lunch in House before opening the garden fête next-door surely promises knockabout farce elsewhere. Then there’s the rain -solid, reliable English rain, coming down in buckets-destined, you might imagine, to make a soggy comic washout round the Maypole.
It’s new to see an actor come skidding to a halt as he enters onstage, while others enter extra casually , as if saying to us, “Everything’s quite, quite normal. We didn’t rush.” As a whole, the cast handles the logistics so smoothly that I began to wonder how difficult it really is for them to get from one stage to another. It’s a test, of course. But at the Royal National Theatre, where House and Garden premiered at two of its three theaters, actors still get lost in the maze backstage, and it isn’t unknown for an actor to enter the wrong play. A while ago, preparing a piece about London theater, I followed Fiona Shaw from her dressing room to her entrance on the stage of the Cottesloe Theatre. She was playing Shakespeare’s boy-king, Richard II. Here’s her passage from reality to fantasy:
Exit room 010, crown upon head. Turn left along the corridor, past a telephone box. Go through swing doors by the windowless rehearsal room. Turn right through swing doors. Left through next set of swing doors. Left again for 25 yards. Past the giant elevator that takes scenery up to the Olivier theater. Do not turn right through swing doors facing you. Turn right to STAGE RIGHT.
Enter the King.
Still, whatever else is going on backstage at the Manhattan Theatre Club-dashing next-door, reading a thriller, yoga exercises, snacking on chocolate biscuits-perhaps we ought to mention what’s happening onstage. Oh, that .
In House , a wealthy industrialist named Teddy, who’s an upper-middle-class buffoon, is in line to become a conservative member of Parliament. His wife, the unhappy but wise Trish, hasn’t spoken to him for weeks because he’s a buffoon who’s unfaithful with his best friend’s wife, Joanna. Teddy’s teen daughter, rebellious schoolgirl Sally, doesn’t speak to him, either. Jake, adolescent son of Joanna, has a crush on Sally. The well-connected novelist and pedophile, snaky Gavin Ryng-Mayne, arrives for lunch to persuade Teddy to run for Parliament. Sweet, ineffectual Giles and philandering Joanna briefly appear; also three mad people, one with a knife. “Mayhem ensues,” as the publicity handouts put it, when the alcoholic French film star, sexy-sexy Lucille Cadeau, arrives to open the garden fête.
Garden is mostly about the marital trials of Joanna and Giles, the bumbling caterers, a difference of opinion between teens Sally and Jake, the three mad people, the rainstorm, a collapsing tent, a Maypole gone wrong and Lucille, the sexy-sexy French film star who’s too sloshed to open the fête.
Each play stands on its own, and I’m afraid that House was enough for me. I felt, unfairly perhaps, that I’d already seen at least some of Garden . But I’ve seen House before, too, in a thousand traditional English drawing-room comedies, a good number of them written by Mr. Ayckbourn. Life and love and how awfully difficult it all can be is a familiar message of his, and his comic types are fairly predictable here. There are moments . Jan Maxwell and Bryce Dallas Howard shine, but the cast can be uneven, even un-English. The director and logistician is John Tillinger, who unfortunately encourages a parody of the fine, upstanding middle classes of England, when nobody parodies the English better than the English themselves.