A Brief History Of Women: New York Reviews

This page contains a selection of reviews from the New York premiere production of Alan Ayckbourn's A Brief History Of Women at the 59E59 Theaters, New York, in May 2018. All reviews are the copyright of the respective publication and / or author. The Stephen Joseph Theatre's press release acknowledging the success of the transfer can be found here.

A Brief History of Women,
an Alan Ayckbourn Comedy of Tragedies (New York Times)
“As funny as a heart attack,” goes the phrase, and it is generally used to indicate anything but merriment. But a change of context can work wonders with a familiar figure of speech. If you were to say “as funny as a heart attack in an Alan Ayckbourn play,” you would mean that a situation is so painfully, awkwardly sad that it is downright hilarious.
Such a medical emergency does indeed occur toward the end of the first of the four short, interrelated and ultimately affecting sketches that make up Mr. Ayckbourn’s
A Brief History of Women, which opened on Wednesday night at 59E59 Theaters as part of the Brits Off Broadway festival. It is a heart attack that introduces laughter into what has hitherto been a most unpleasant encounter.
A husband and wife have been hurling brutal insults at each other, with every intention of wounding, and it has reached the point where he is about to strike her. Then a second man steps in to intervene, and the husband, an old fellow, abruptly doubles up in pain.
In the frantic moments that follow, as one man’s life seems to be nearing its end, the audience erupts into harsh guffaws, as unexpected and involuntary as belches at a dinner party. After more than half a century in the theater, Mr. Ayckbourn clearly still has the power to startle us into the most appropriately inappropriate reactions.
Though calculations vary,
A Brief History of Women is generally believed to be the 81st play written by the 79-year-old Mr. Ayckbourn, whose portfolio brims with sui generis comic masterpieces. This latest offering - first staged last year at the Stephen Joseph Theater in Scarborough, England, where most of Mr. Ayckbourn’s work originates - isn’t in the league of top-drawer works like his The Norman Conquests and Absurd Person Singular.
Directed by its author,
A Brief History of Women can at times feel as broad and overstated as the children’s Christmas pantomime (in this case, Jack and the Beanstalk) that figures crucially in one of the plot lines here. Yet just when you start to think that the old master is on autopilot, he turns a sharp corner with a wrench that surprises you into spontaneous tears or giggles or, as often as not, both.
Though its overweening title might suggest otherwise,
A Brief History of Women is neither feminist nor misogynist in its viewpoint. It might better be called A Brief History of a House, since each of its scenes take place, over six decades, in one of those stately piles that once served as seats of power for the British aristocracy.
That is still the function of this estate, Kirkbridge Manor in the opening scene, set in 1925. But through some metamorphic magic conducted by stage hands in full view of the audience, this grand “Downton Abbey”-style home is transformed into a girls’ school of 1945; an arts center of 1965; and finally the Kirkbridge Manor Hotel, which takes place in 1985. (Kevin Jenkins designed the time-capsule set and costumes.)
You will also find one anchoring central character, at different ages, on view throughout, though often nearly invisible. His name is Anthony Spates (played by Antony Eden), and his changing roles correspond to the changing times and scenery.
While this production’s other five cast members deftly assume a flamboyant variety of parts, Mr. Eden remains a compellingly still center amid social flux and emotional frenzy. He exudes an open-eyed combination of tentative hope and wariness that makes him the perfect Ayckbourn hero-by-default (and all Mr. Ayckbourn’s heroes are by default) and observer.
Spates evolves from a footman of the 1920s, to a schoolteacher, to a public arts administrator, to - in the circle-closing final scene - a part-time hotel manager. In each capacity this unexceptional, gentle and rather passive man is beholden to the kindness of women, who prove to be the fairer sex in more ways than one, and ultimately the stronger as well.
As social commentary
A Brief History isn’t all that enlightening, though it’s clear that Mr. Ayckbourn is on the side of the angels (i.e. the play’s often-put-upon females) throughout. The show’s first scene, in particular, is didactically blunt in its discussion of women’s rights, or the lack thereof.
Yet each of the play’s chapters has moments that are classic Ayckbourn in their comic sadness, reminding us of this playwright’s affinity for the modern theater’s greatest psychologist of the human paradox, Anton Chekhov. (The parallels feel even clearer when you realize that Russian productions tend to emphasize the farcical aspects of Chekhov more than English-speaking versions do.)
Mr. Ayckbourn’s enduring and infectious affection for theater permeates every scene. (Note, especially, the use he makes of doors that shut out the sound of conversation.) A correspondingly gleeful love of craft animates each ensemble member.
They include Russell Dixon (having a high old time in an assortment of wheezy roles that include an amateur theater director), Frances Marshall, Laura Matthews, Laurence Pears and Louise Shuttleworth. The women, appropriately, have the richer parts, and these actresses revel in the eccentric bravery of their most fully developed roles.
You should know that in addition to the aforementioned heart attack,
A Brief History features a more (how to put this?) uncommon, though equally dangerous, life-threatening situation, which is as funny as it is far-fetched. (Spoiler: It involves fireworks.)
Conversely, the second half of
A Brief History features an absolutely heart-rending moment that sounds as if it should be merely silly. It involves two people pretending to be a dancing cow. Be warned: It is likely to induce stifled sobs in even hard-bitten stoics.
(Ben Brantley, 2 May 2018)

A Brief History of Women (Time Out)
The title of Alan Ayckbourn's wistful comedy
A Brief History of Women is a bit of a trick. The play isn't brief (it runs a leisurely two and half hours) and its barrels of history are not exactly “of” women. It has many ladies, but it’s about a man - it’s so focused on him, in fact, that we can only hear a scene if he enters it. When Tony (Antony Eden) stands outside a door on Kevin Jenkins’s clever cutaway set, the people inside the room mouth lines and gesture in silence; when he opens the door, sound floods in. Tony is the type to hear a great deal, so despite his essential meekness, his story includes dramatic fights, marital meltdowns and even one violent death.
At first, Tony is a bright 17-year-old, picking up butler work at a stately manor in 1925; then, quick as a flash, it’s twenty years later and the house has turned into a school, where Tony woos a fragile young war widow. In the ’60s, the estate has become an arts center, run by an ever more diffident Tony; when 1985 marches brightly in, the house has been inevitably converted into a posh hotel. In each era, the genre shifts (there’s a panto rehearsal in the third act that’s worth the price of admission), but somehow the man barely changes: Tony ends the play just as he began it, bowing people into rooms too expensive for him. Women, meanwhile, have undergone a revolution - painfully, shyly, and often leaning on sweet Tony’s arm.
Ayckbourn is past master of theatrical innovation (as in
House & Garden and The Norman Conquests), and he’s 81 plays into his career. One of the key pleasures of A Brief History lies in admiring a peak craftsman at work. Everything fits together beautifully, from the third-person limited perspective - so familiar in novels, so rare onstage - to the graceful counterbalancing of scene against scene. The Stephen Joseph Theatre (of North Yorkshire, England) has given him a strong cast, particularly the superb ranter Russell Dixon, who plays misogyny in three different keys, and Louise Shuttleworth, who manages moments of real pathos amidst the time-hopping hurly-burly. The surprise star, though, is Jenkins’s set, which crams a ballroom, paneled study and marbled hallway onto the small 59E59 mainstage. Watching it change from elegance to raffishness and back again, putting on different identities (a fireplace becomes a heater, chairs get increasingly comfortable), is somehow very poignant. You feel somehow that years from now it will still be uptown, waiting patiently long after its human comedy has gone.
(Helen Shaw, 2 May 2018)

Dark Comedy of Manors (Wall Street Journal)
Alan Ayckbourn’s 81st full-length play recently opened off Broadway. His 82nd full-length play will open in England in September. Given that he is 79 years old and shows no signs of slowing down, I assume that he has at least another dozen or so in him - and that they’ll all be good. Not only has no other English-speaking playwright turned out more good plays, but a significant percentage of them are first-rate. Time was when Mr. Ayckbourn was casually dismissed on this side of the Atlantic as the English Neil Simon, but in recent years he’s come to be more properly regarded as the English Chekhov, a master of sad comedies that shine bright lights into the dark recesses of the middle-class soul.
Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre, which Mr. Ayckbourn ran from 1972 to 2009 and where he continues to stage his own work, remounts one or two of his productions every couple of seasons as part of 59E59 Theatres’ annual
Brits Off Broadway festival. This time it’s Play No. 81, A Brief History of Women, in which he uses the seemingly dull life of a fellow who started out as a footman and ended up as a hotelier as a lens through which we view the changing place of women in 20th-century English society.
As usual with Mr. Ayckbourn,
A Brief History of Women arises from an ingenious structural premise: All four scenes take place on the ground floor of the same country house at 20-year intervals, the first in 1925 and the last in 1985. In the first scene, Anthony Spates (played by Antony Eden ), the only character who appears throughout the play, is a part-time servant to the owners of Kirkbridge Manor, an aristocratic couple who are on the outs. In 1945 the manor has been turned into a prep school where Anthony teaches, contriving to get himself fired for engaging in hanky-panky with a colleague. By 1965 it’s become an arts center that he runs - not very well, one gathers, though he does find a wife there - and in the last part, the great house has been done over as a hotel of which Anthony is the part-time manager and where he meets a 97-year-old guest who once upon a time was the unhappy lady of Kirkbridge Manor.
Such is the stuff miniseries are made of, but Mr. Ayckbourn doesn’t think that way. Instead, he compresses each “episode” of his complex plot into a single scene that plays out in something close to real time, thereby intensifying its emotional impact. A few of the plot lines are explicitly farce-flavored, but shadows of melancholy are rarely far from view, and the elegiac reunion scene that ends the play contains a brief speech so charged with the truth of a lifetime’s experience that it took my breath away: “Houses. They never forget you. They always remember you.”
Mr. Eden grapples successfully with an unusual acting challenge, which is that Anthony is more a person to whom things happen than one who makes them happen himself. We sympathize with him as he struggles to make sense of his little life, but it is the 19 other characters with whom he interacts throughout the 60-year span of
A Brief History of Women who mainly hold our attention. These latter roles are divvied up among Russell Dixon (who has the funniest roles and makes the most of them), Frances Marshall, Laura Matthews, Laurence Pears and Louise Shuttleworth, all of whom shift from part to part with a magician’s skill. Mr. Ayckbourn’s direction, as always, is understated and discreetly effective: “A Brief History of Women” is an extremely tricky play to stage, but you’d never guess it from watching this production.
Having reviewed 20 of Mr. Ayckbourn’s plays in this space since 2005, I’m inclined on first viewing to think that
A Brief History of Women, while beautifully wrought and unexpectedly poignant, isn’t quite as memorable as, say, Absurd Person Singular, The Norman Conquests, Private Fears in Public Places or Time of My Life, all of which I rank among the very best English plays of the postwar era. On the other hand, I brought a guest who had never seen any of Mr. Ayckbourn’s plays, and she found it enthralling - as, I hasten to add, did I. Either way, I commend A Brief History of Women to your attention: It’s by turns madly funny and touching enough to draw tears.
(Terry Teachout, 8 May 2018)

Admiring Ayckbourn (Zoglin's View)
I consider Alan Ayckbourn the great playwright of my theater-going lifetime. Through most of the 1980s and ’90s, I would plan my trips to London to coincide with new plays from the prolific British dramatist: Henceforward…, The Revengers’ Comedies, Man of the Moment, Wildest Dreams - an amazing string of masterpieces, most of which have not even been produced in the U.S. (never mind Broadway; not even Off, or in the regionals). Over here, Ayckbourn is still best known for his earlier, lighter-weight comedies, like Absurd Person Singular and The Norman Conquests, and for his high-concept stage gimmicks (one weekend at a country house replayed three times from three different rooms, for example, in the Norman trilogy). This has only affirmed his typecasting as a clever boulevard farceur - rather than, more accurately, as a profound chronicler of the human tragicomedy, an incisive social satirist and intrepid stage innovator, surely our best living playwright.
He is still going strong at 79, and thanks to the invaluable 59E59 Off-Broadway company, New Yorkers have been able to see many of Ayckbourn’s recent plays, in productions directed by the playwright himself for his home company in Scarborough, England. A couple of recent offerings have been lesser works, and I was beginning to fear that age is finally catching up with him. But the latest 59E59 import,
A Brief History of Women, shows that Ayckbourn is still in top form.
As usual, he starts out by setting up strict stage parameters. The play is made up of four scenes, spaced exactly 20 years apart, starting in an English manor home in the mid-1920s - which becomes, by turns, a girls boarding school just after World War II, a community arts center in the turbulent ’60s, and finally a boutique hotel in the gentrifying ’80s. The eras are linked by one character - Anthony Spates, a 17-year-old servant in the manor house, who becomes a teacher at the school, the administrator of the arts center, and finally owner of the hotel. The title is somewhat ironic, since the play is less a history of women than of the self-effacing Anthony’s encounters with them - the females who variously enchant, ensnare and love him over the decades.
The play is both funny and poignant, perfectly balanced, with light brushstrokes of social commentary and feminist history. But what struck me most, on this go-round with Ayckbourn, is how thoroughly (unlike so many current playwrights) he conceives of his work as theater creations - not with showy gimmicks, but with the simple confidence of a man who believes that the medium and the message are inextricable. So, in this case, we have one set, divided into three parts - on the left a study, on the right a ballroom, in the middle a sort of anteroom, through which characters move back and forth, opening and closing imaginary doors, with sound effects that rise and fall as the rooms are entered and exited. For each new scene, the furnishings are altered - the study becomes an office, the ballroom a school auditorium - in full view of the audience, with an economy of movement that belies the drastic changes from era to era.
The transformation for the last scene is done with such amusingly precise choreography that it actually gets applause. Leave it to Ayckbourn to create a play in which even the stagehands become stars. A small thing, perhaps, but worth savoring - like this warm and winning play.

(Richard Zoglin, 16 May 2018)

All reviews are copyright of the respective publication.