It would be tempting to say that Alan Ayckbourn’s new play is one of his best or one of his most innovative, but his plays have been so successful and varied over the last 35 years that such a statement isn’t saying much. Rather say that My Wonderful Day, arriving here as part of the Brits Off Broadway festival, shows the 70-year-old playwright still at the peak of the comic brilliance that he has displayed for more than three decades. The title refers to the homework essay for Winnie, almost 9, who is being kept out of school because of some mild hoarseness. But her mother, Laverne (Petra Letang), has brought Winnie with her to a house-cleaning job. Laverne’s husband has left her, and she is almost ready to deliver another child, but she’s upbeat and confident nonetheless. As Winnie sits quietly by, she observes and records the strange behavior of the adults she encounters.
And the events of the day? Well, there's the grumpy homeowner Kevin (Terence Booth), a TV star who is on the outs with his wife, Paula. After a violent argument the night before—according to Laverne, the kitchen “looks like they were hurling food”—Paula has taken French leave. Speaking of French, it’s also Tuesday, and Winnie has to practice learning the language by using it at all times—it’s Laverne’s dream to take her children back to her ancestral home, Martinique. Consequently, Kevin thinks Winnie doesn’t understand English.
The confusion extends to Kevin’s go-to guy and former best man, Josh, who turns up after it’s discovered that Paula has sabotaged a marketing DVD for Kevin’s business. Why would the absent Paula do such a thing? Well, it may have to do with Kevin’s assistant, Tiffany (Ruth Gibson), a bouncy, warm-hearted redhead in a miniskirt whose office skills may not be her best asset. All three say things in front of Winnie that they shouldn’t say and that Winnie dutifully scribbles down for her essay.
Because Winnie has to be quiet, much of the play is built on physical comedy, and Ayckbourn’s direction of it is superb, evoking the feel of silent films. Every time Winnie turns to record something in her notebook, you’ll chuckle. There’s a scene when the starving Josh—there’s no food in the house—sees Winnie eating a cookie from her backpack and wants her to share the other that he knows she has. Closer and closer he inches his chair, salivating and wheedling, before finally making a grab for the backpack.
Ayckbourn also knows the way adults behave with children, and vice versa, and the verbal humor arises accordingly: Tiffany tries to entice the uninterested Winnie into watching the DVD with “It’s a commercially mass-produced copy of a corporate video labeled Fantacity!” And as Tiffany watches it (the effective lighting by Mick Hughes places the audience under a flickering big-screen TV), Winnie fidgets, balances a pencil on her upper lip, and slouches in her chair. It doesn’t sound like much, but Ayesha Antoine’s tour de force performance as Winnie is breathtaking. Antoine, who is 28, has nailed the psyche and movements of a 9-year-old, and is utterly convincing. And her facial expressions evoke the genius of Buster Keaton.
In plays like Absurd Person Singular, Things We Do for Love, and his quintessential The Norman Conquests, which had a hit revival on Broadway this year, Ayckbourn has shown he is a master of wringing comedy from the misery and infidelities of the British bourgeoisie.
Here, Paul Kemp’s divorced, disheveled Josh is probably an alcoholic, and he chokes up thinking about his daughter Amber. Tiffany has a monologue about being sent to boarding school and "lonely love" that explains her need to connect to the child Winnie and possibly her attraction to the older Kevin. It’s also inevitable that Kevin’s affair will be discovered (by the late-arriving Paula, embodied by Alexandra Mathie as a formidable mix of starch and bark). As in the greatest comedy, tragedy is close by.
Roger Glossop provides unremarkable, sterile furniture for kitchen, office and living room, and Hughes supplies mood lighting for each, with hallways delineated by lozenges of light as characters walk through them. The simplicity is apt, since the young Winnie wouldn’t pay much attention to such things anyway, and it helps to see the strange surroundings sketchily through her eyes. It also keeps the emphasis on the situations and the actors, who seize their opportunities with relish. What Kemp does with the line, “I’ve known violent women,” is priceless. And the final moments, played in silence, are pitch-perfect. My Wonderful Day more than keeps the promise of its title.