Time Travels, Plot Doesn't
"Sorry I'm late," whines the dominatrix in Communicating Doors. "I think there was a gun battle in the Strand." She sports a tattoo, nosebleed heels, and a leopard-print coat, underneath which is a layer of patent leather lingerie, complete with zippers dangling from pointy nipples. Poopay, as she calls herself (after the French poupée, meaning "doll"), didn't expect a wheezing senior citizen to answer the Regal Hotel's door. Don't call her a whore. She prefers the term sexual consultant, and her specialty "wasn't designed for mature persons."
Poopay (Tanya Bravo) might as well ditch her riding crop. Her services this evening demand little more than cosigning a "confession" for her wizened old client. He is Reece (Bill Perlach), who claims to have killed his wives (Ruella in 1999 and Jessica two decades earlier). His friend Julian (Bob Rogerson) bursts into the bedroom, prowling after Poopay like a spider, only not as graceful. She leaps into the foyer, setting a time machine in motion. The lights fizzle out. Stars prick the sky above the stage. Now it's 1999, twenty years earlier (though the hotel's tacky, dun-hue décor hasn't changed a smidgen).
The so-called "communicating doors" between rooms magically let us through to three distinct settings, taking place in the years 1999, 1979, and 2019. With the two wives, Poopay must flip back and forth in a contest against time or meet a murderous demise in the course of rewriting history. It's a semi-inventive twist on the dusty British stage staple: the parlor murder-mystery that manages to entertain as a minor diversion, not unlike a dinner-party game with its own convoluted logic.
A slew of questions spring from this not-so-novel plot device. How do Poopay and Ruella and Jessica alter the outside world after literally dabbling in history? Why doesn't the hotel security guard hopscotch through time? (He remains unchanged, like the chintz curtains.) What keeps Poopay from scurrying back to the safety of her own time? Subtle hints point to political upheaval in the city, but since we're given so little detail, it's difficult to care about the clues. Such questions are distracting, to say the least, but not the only problem with this production of the Actors' Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre.
There is something amiss in David Arisco's schmaltzy production of Communicating Doors. Comedies with sinister undertones make a tough sell; one-liners feel misplaced among the blood-spattered bodies. And Alan Ayckbourn's frothy play teeters unconvincingly between genres, as well as among time locations.
Not that Ayckbourn is necessarily a problematic playwright. His intricate writings have won countless national and international awards, including seven London Evening Standards. Born in 1939, he has worked in theater since the age of seventeen as, variously, director, writer, actor, stage manager, scene painter, prop maker, and lighting-and-sound technician. His mentor at the theater in Scarborough, Stephen Joseph, first encouraged him to put pen to paper. Twenty-nine of his plays have been produced in London's West End and the Royal National Theater or by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Stateside Ayckbourn's work has been nominated for Tony Awards on Broadway, filmed versions have appeared in French and English, and he's been translated into 40 languages across the globe. Ayckbourn, one of England's most popular playwrights, is often compared to Neil Simon. His acid-tongued characters deal with modern, middle-class manners from a cynical perspective. His best-known plays include How the Other Half Loves, The Norman Conquests, and A Small Family Business.
But Communicating Doors is not one of Ayckbourn's best. Complexity isn't high on its list of character attributes. That's why Tanya Bravo's delightful turn as the reluctant dominatrix outshines the entire cast. Her helium voice toggles between octaves, conveying various degrees of nervousness. She's more a burlesque sketch than a living, breathing entity, but she manages to make the most of her bawdy role, whether filching designer duds off a dead body or oozing tears at the mention of murder.
Sandra Ives, most recently seen playing sexual politics in Closer at the GableStage, is Ruella, another hardy Brit, steamrollering her way through life with upper-crust tenacity. (At one point Poopay explains the rather grim way that Ruella is destined to meet her maker, which only tickles the woman.) Marcy Ruderhausen fares less well as ditzy wife numero uno, Jessica. She pads around in poofy slippers, looking as though she's about to knock something over. It's not necessarily her fault; her role is so underdeveloped she doesn't have anything more to do.
The men are miscast as menacing rapscallions. Bill Perlach must play a man in the prime of his life, then with a foot in the grave. His lugubrious makeup merely grants him a mummified look as the elderly Reece. Later he's romping around the honeymoon suite in what appears to be a lipstick-red Speedo. His lispy speech doesn't lend much of a chill factor. Neither does his dress code. As Julian, Bob Rogerson must contend with a two-dimensional part as villain with a capital V. His slump-shouldered knave leaves us missing some important elements, such as motivation. What makes Julian so wicked? And why does he don Poopay's two-tone wig in a ridiculous segment that borders on homophobia? Is repressed sexuality to blame for his ill manners? Or has he simply nothing better to wear?
The story climaxes several times without forming a solid resolution. In a gimmicky slapstick scene on the room's balcony, the female trio attempts to rescue Ruella. (In the world of time travel, Ruella too can be part of the effort.) This recycled gag smacks of television sitcoms and their cinematic offspring. The play is brimming with miscues of this type, bizarreness for the sake of bizarreness, people disguised as Dickensian ghosts, villains who literally rise from the dead (or at least thrust a hand through the sofa pillows), and a plot contrivance that backfires on itself. For instance Ruella must convince Jessica of her husband's future ill will, so she brings back a note as evidence. The singular credential lies not in his handwriting but his bad spelling.
Although the leather and latex may suggest a risqué production, this is in fact a safe, unchallenging play designed to please wide audiences and offend as few people as possible (except maybe dominatrixes). If Poopay could predict the future, she might have checked out the gun battle in the somewhat dubious area of London, the Strand. Then she -- and we -- might have had a little more fun.
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