Arrivals and Departures is Alan Ayckbourn’s 78th play, which means (if I have my math right) he’s written one each year since birth and three before it. (He’s 75.) This may explain or at least justify his name, which is pronounced “ache-born”: From the start, even his most knockabout comedies have harbored a secret sadness. You could almost miss it in any single outing; was there a minute left over from laughter to think deep thoughts about The Norman Conquests? But in the aggregate it’s apparent that the devious structural mechanisms he’s famous for — the perspective shifts, the interlocked serializations, the multidirectional time schemes — are the means by which he shapes and shares a melancholy view of the world. Unlike his near contemporary Tom Stoppard, whose theatrical gamesmanship sometimes seems designed to keep such feelings at a safe distance, Ayckbourn engineers structures that allow unsafety. His plays are memory palaces, and (because they are funny) forgetting palaces too.
Play No. 78, now running in repertory with two other Ayckbourn evenings as part of the Brits Off Broadway festival, should possibly count as Nos. 79 and 80 as well; Arrivals and Departures is really (at least) three plays in one. The first, a shell for the other two, concerns the bumbling attempts of a quasi-military unit called Strategic Simulated Distractional Operations to catch a bad guy codenamed Cerastes at a London rail terminal. Under the leadership of the officious Captain Sexton, the unit’s two dozen members (rendered here by a mere handful of actors) rehearse the behavior of “normal” travelers so that Cerastes, when he disembarks, will be lulled into a false sense of security. Ayckbourn is doing the same thing to the audience by means of the comedy. The SSDO team members are hilariously terrible in their roles: They drop their fake babies and mangle their absurd accents. We are thus disarmed.
But two outsiders are attached to the plan. Barry Hawkins is a late-middle-aged Yorkshire traffic warden helicoptered to London to identify Cerastes, to whom he recently gave a parking ticket. Affable, excited, and phenomenally garrulous, Barry is also, in Kim Wall’s sterling performance, a magic act of verbal and physical tics assembled into the absolute likeness of a very specific reality. You’ve known and avoided this man, and felt bad about it.
The other outsider is Ez (formerly Esmé) Swain, a 23-year-old soldier whose mission, which she is in no way happy about, is to protect and endure Barry. But then Ez doesn’t seem to be happy about anything — and in Act One, as the Cerastes operation proceeds from rehearsal to performance, we learn, in dozens of flashbacks, why. The daughter of a military hero father and a smothering hysteric mum, Ez has dedicated her life to the achievement of honor through the army and of equanimity through the control of emotion. As played with moving restraint by Elizabeth Boeg, she is competent and unclubbable, wary in a way that’s both painful and apt. Amazingly, through the flashbacks (some just a few seconds, others playlets in themselves) she and Ayckbourn show you how her inner story has made her the kind of person we see in the outer one.
If Ez’s flashbacks function conventionally, Ayckbourn upends the convention in Act Two, which is, in outline, a rerun of Act One. This time, though, we get Barry’s history. His flashbacks — to multiple betrayals in love and business, as well as a drunken wedding and an astonishingly ugly brown suit — are painstakingly fitted into the holes in the action we witnessed earlier, holes we didn’t even notice at the time. Though about half of the play is thus repeated, all of it is altered, and deepened; we are now following not only Barry’s biography, and the SSDO caper, but reexamining Ez in light of what we’ve learned about her. Something even beyond all this arises too, like an overtone: the recognition that the greater part of each person’s reality is utterly invisible to anyone else. The emotional climax of Barry’s backstory, for instance, fully and beautifully rendered in Act Two, actually does occur in Act One; we just can’t see it as it happens. (He seems to be cleaning his glasses with his tie at the time.) In this way we are implicitly asked to contemplate how much of life happens for other people in the moments when they look away suddenly, or we do.
It’s a flaw or a glory of Arrivals and Departures that this “overtone” story is the most powerful and original. Barry’s and Ez’s flashback biographies have soap-opera tendencies; the SSDO shell is a bit of a farce (until suddenly, in a coda, it isn’t). One may even be tempted to suggest that each of these would benefit from being developed more fully on its own; in any case, their different styles make for a lumpy sauce. And the production, directed by Ayckbourn and imported from his home at Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theater, is (aside from the two lead performances) less than ideal. The “bad acting” of the actors is not very convincing, especially when repeated so often; the production values (sets, sound, wigs) are not at typical New York levels. But this may be part of the conception, or at least a conscious compromise. Ayckbourn seems to feel that such things are only incidentally related to the main business at hand.
That business would be the building of narrative structures whose complexity forces a deep imaginative engagement. In Arrivals and Departures, Ayckbourn is interested not in any one narrative mode or any one character but in the brilliant geometries of their connection. And of ours. Clearly the goofy Barry is his mouthpiece when he argues against the cynicism of disengagement:
I’ll tell you what life’s taught me. It’s taught me if you start out always thinking the best of people, just occasionally maybe you’ll be disappointed; but if you start out thinking the worst of everyone, chances are you’ll be permanently miserable all of your life and serve you bloody right.
It may be preachy, but after 78 mostly undisappointing plays, Ayckbourn has earned the right to build a small soapbox in his latest fantastic cathedral.
Arrivals and Departures is at 59E59 through June 29.