By TOM CHESEK
As the author of nearly 80 produced plays, he’s been a magnet for gleaming trophies, plaques and medallions that include the Tony, the Olivier and the Moliere Award, not to mention five honorary doctorates and what was that other one? Oh yeah, a knighthood.
You’d think then with all of that precious metal clanking about, Sir Alan Ayckbourn might make a healthy amount of noise on this side of the Atlantic. But regrettably, the works of the dramatist best known for the Norman Conquests trilogy and Absurd Person Singular are apparently in no danger of challenging the likes of Nunsense for dominance outside of America’s biggest cities and universities.
Beginning Tuesday, May 15, Two River Theater Company endeavors to change all that as indeed they’ve worked to change the standard set of expectations for a “suburban” stage operation when the professional troupe caps its 2011-2012 mainstage season with a new production of the 2009 comedy My Wonderful Day.
Set in the home of TV personality Kevin Tate (Marc Vietor), Ayckbourn’s farcical look at “the foibles, failed hopes and dreams of the British middle class” unfolds as a series of keenly observed seen through the eyes of “nearly nine year old” Winnie (Susan Heyward), daughter of the Tate household’s Anglo-Caribbean cleaning woman, Laverne (Kimberly Hébert Gregory).
It’s young Winnie’s school assignment to take in and record the things that occur around her throughout the day and take it all in she does, much to the eventual dismay of the vindictive Mrs. Tate (Danielle Skraastad), Tate’s mistress Tiffany (Alison Cimmet) and Tate’s mate Josh (Kevin Isola).
When My Wonderful Day made its world premiere at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, North Yorkshire (where Ayckbourn served as artistic director for nearly 40 years), it featured a quirky bit of casting, in that the vigilant child Winnie was played by then 28-year-old Ayesha Antoine. The actress reprised the role when the show jumped the puddle for its Off Broadway run and, with the casting of the grownup Heyward, TRTC and director Nicholas Martin maintain the recently minted (and entirely unofficial) tradition.
“It’s a fun challenge to play someone that young,” says Heyward of the character, who’s onstage throughout the show, gets to read portions of the classic book The Secret Garden, and who delivers some of her dialogue in French (giving some of the other characters the mistaken belief that the child doesn’t understand English).
“You have to let go of your adult opinions, and get rid of all your life experience, says Heyward.
Describing the nonjudgmental, apparently innocent Winnie as “a bit of a fish out of water” in a houseful of liars, philanderers, backstabbers and the just generally clueless, the actress observes that “people tend to talk over her head as if she’s not there. They let down their guard, divulge their secrets, thinking that she won’t really understand. They think they have a Get Out of Jail Free card.”
This is Heyward’s first Ayckbourn project, which is also the case for most of the young cast, the director and the Two River team itself although the company has called in some pretty serious reinforcement for its “BeforePlay” series of presentations in the lobby of TRTC’s branded Bridge Avenue arts center.
Author, playwright, director (and member of the administrative staff at New Jersey landmark Paper Mill Playhouse), Michael T. Mooney brings a level of Ayckbourn expertise to the table that includes his having founded the 4As (Alan Ayckbourn Aficionados of America), and staging the American premieres of no less than four Ayckbourn plays. Last year, he very nearly presented a local production of the master’s somewhat daunting diptych House and Garden a pair of full-length plays designed to play simultaneously on two neighboring stages, with both the audience and the characters shuttling from one to the other.
“I don’t want to suggest that Ayckbourn’s plays are Too British,” says the Asbury Park resident, who traveled overseas to study with Ayckbourn for several summers (and who’s been so bold as to perform in front of the playwright, in a role that Ayckbourn had written for himself).
The characters in his plays are often well read, cosmopolitan, snd the best of his plays are character driven, says Mooney. The least of his plays are better than most of other peoples best.
The sought-after authority on all things Ayckbourn calls the relatively recent and lesser known My Wonderful Day a good choice for TRTC’s maiden voyage, noting that the show boasts “a multicultural cast, easy scenery, and it has a very young character at its center. She’s our eyes, our point of view.”
My Wonderful Day previews May 15 through 18; opens on Saturday, May 19 (SOLD OUT), and continues with a schedule of evening and matinee performances, Wednesdays through Sundays until June 3. Tickets are $37 $57 (with a discounted price of $24 for anyone 30 years and younger) and are available by calling the TRTC Box Office at 732.345.1400, or visiting the TRTC website for schedule details and availability as well as info on dinner/show packages and other special-event performances.