Alan Ayckbourn’s latest play, A Brief History of Women, has the hallmarks of the best plays in his vast repertoire. His knack at dissecting and satirizing British society is unparalleled (Anglophiles will particularly enjoy them, but they’re accessible to all). There is the great British obsession with class, along with Ayckbourn’s distinctive mastery of exits and entrances familiar from The Norman Conquests, Communicating Doors, and the double bill of House and Garden. There’s poignancy, too, since the new comedy—the title is a bit of misdirection—is an homage to one man’s affecting life.
Structured as four episodes, A Brief History of Women spans much of the 20th century; it is an elegy for time and place that centers on one man and one building, apparently in Scotland. The hero is Tony Spates (Antony Eden), first encountered in 1925 as a temporary footman at Kirkbridge Manor. He has been brought in to serve at an engagement party for the daughter of Lady Caroline Kirkbridge (Frances Marshall), married to a much older husband, who is not the girl’s father. The screaming, sputtering laird is played by the reliable, plummy-voiced Russell Dixon as a sort of Alastair Sim on steroids. Holding forth on women to a young military hero, Fergus (Laurence Pears), the apoplectic old goat says:
Medically speaking they’re an entirely separate, inferior species. Smaller brains, far less muscle. First, they’re given the vote. What the hell’s next? I’ll tell you what comes next. Socialism.
What ensues is a very funny scene in which the 17-year-old Spates—Eden doesn’t look quite that young, but chalk it up to life on the family farm—is witness to Lady Caroline’s abuse by her husband and defends her from physical violence. After his chivalry, it’s no wonder the class barrier falls. But Tony's manhandling of the boor will cost him his job: yet, as one door closes, another opens.
Twenty years later, Kirkbridge has become a girls’ prep school, underheated since England is still struggling after World War II. Tony has become a teacher and is having an affair with Ursula, a colleague (an exuberantly randy Laura Matthews). Their relationship has been noticed and frowned on by the Churchillian headmaster (Dixon). On Guy Fawkes night, however, the fireworks set off by the gung ho sports teacher, Desmond Kennedy (Laurence Pears), result in an unseemly exposure of their romance and a personal disaster for Tony.
Another 20 years pass, and Kirkbridge is now an arts center with crumbling facilities. Tony, the artistic director, takes a back seat to the dramatic goings-on for a Christmas pantomime rehearsal, where Dixon’s director, Dennis, is dealing with absent actors while playing the fruity, cross-dressing “dame” part. There are romantic entanglements for Tony here too, as well as a resurgence of political and class tensions in the divisive 1960s.
In the last encounter, when Tony is 77, he is filling in at Kirkbridge after retirement. The old manor has been refurbished as a hotel, and Tony is its former director, returning to fill in while the new chief is on vacation. After the wives and loves he has lost, Tony gets a boost of nostalgia from an unexpected arrival.
Six actors play all the parts, and they are superb, although more successful in some roles than others. Dixon’s wildly fey dramatics teacher is terrific, but he can’t persuasively boomerang to a heterosexual adulterer in the same segment. Pears is full of vigor whether he’s the kilted war hero or a 1960s antiwar rebel—his smallest part, and a gem. Louise Shuttleworth is excellent as a social climber and as a wronged wife, and Marshall is a lovely Lady Caroline. Ayckbourn gives her a marvelous speech on being a shopkeeper’s daughter. The high points for Matthews are a jilted fiancée and a gum-chewing stage manager with limited brain power.
Eden as Tony is the center of attention, and his subtle facial expressions as the young footman in the midst of domestic warfare are particularly engaging from the start. He navigates a long road, from a rural youth who sees no future except the farm, to a young teacher in love, to a man who, in spite of a rich life, has regrets.
Kevin Jenkins has provided four distinct spaces on a very small stage, and Ayckbourn, who directs, uses them well. During the school segment, staff and students dash to and fro to the sound of overlapping hallway conversations, announcements, and bells—it’s virtually an homage to Ayckbourn’s instinct for exits and entrances—even though no actual doors are on the set. Even if at times it feels a tad schematic, A Brief History of Women is a delightful entry in the playwright’s extraordinary body of work. There is no one like him.
Part of Brits Off Broadway, Alan Ayckbourn’s A Brief History of Women plays through May 27 at 59E59 Theaters (59 E. 59th St.) Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday; matinees are Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. For tickets, call Ticket Central at 212-279-4200 or go online to 59e59.org.