If future Alan Ayckbourn productions seem comparatively pallid, well, it’s his own unhappy fault. In June, the playwright directed his own Private Fears in Public Places, a comic drama about six Londoners, and in doing so he set the bar awfully high. His fine-tuned humor made the characters seem sadder, and his careful depiction of loneliness made them all the funnier: the jujitsu of melancholy.
It’s true that the current Broadway revival of Ayckbourn’s Absurd Person Singular needs no help to seem clumsy and unconvincing. But its proximity to Private Fears helps reveal how much more satisfying this show should have been. Here we watch some funny things happen to three couples whose lives intersect on three consecutive Christmas Eves, and some sad things, too. But there’s no sense of cohesion, of a tragicomic world being inhabited.
To be fair to Absurd’s director, John Tillinger, Private Fears is a superior piece of writing. But what made that production a kind of Platonic ideal of Ayckbourniana was the cast. The playwright had imported the whole troupe from his home theater in Scarborough, England, reaping the benefit of their experience working with each other, and with him. Though Tillinger gets some good work from his cast—particularly Paxton Whitehead and downtown standout Clea Lewis—a pickup company of New York actors can’t match that delicacy. It’s a useful, if not altogether pleasant, reminder that working conditions on Broadway often make the hard job of mounting plays even harder.