Occasionally I write in these pages about bizarre theatrical coincidences, and this past week I have discovered one that absolutely staggers the imagination. Preparing to attend the Park Square Theatre's production of Alan Aykbourn's Communicating Doors, I found an article about the play in the St. Paul Pioneer Press written by William Randall Beard, a local freelancer. The article described how the play's director, Howard Dallin, will no longer be helming plays in the Twin Cities after doing so for nearly 30 years, and then the article went on to say some flattering things about the production itself.
You can imagine my surprise when I attended the show and discovered in its program that the Park Square Theatre happens to have a literary manager/press-relations flack by the name of William Randall Beard! Briefly thinking that this was too much of a coincidence, I considered calling the theater to see if the William Randall Beard who wrote the article and the William Randall Beard who works for the theater weren't the same man after all, but then I thought better of it. The Pioneer Press is, after all, a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper, and though I know they have had some trouble meeting their designated profit margins, I could not believe that they would publish what amounts to a press release. I won't believe it, and anyone who says otherwise is just rotten in my book. As unlikely as it seems, there must be two William Randall Beards in the Twin Cities theater scene. That is the only explanation I will accept.
This curious series of events seems fitting for a play about the unlikely coincidence of three women, separated by some 40-odd years, finding themselves in a single hotel room with the same man who murdered all three of them. Perhaps I should explain: Playwright Alan Aykbourn specializes in a style of farce in which characters say humorous things and then rush in and out of doors to avoid embarrassing themselves in front of other characters, who are usually also rushing in and out of doors, inevitably to avoid somebody else in the play, and they pause only long enough to say something witty. This sort of dramatic structure has been popular since, oh, the Restoration, at least, and eventually became simplified to the point that on Scooby Doo it had devolved into dogs and hippies running in and out of doors while being chased by werewolves and the Addams Family.
Aykbourn is a better writer than those found on Scooby Doo, however, and he has done all he can to infuse his plays about slamming doors with enormous resourcefulness and imagination. For example, in his 1975 play Bedroom Farce, Aykbourn decided that it was not enough to have characters running in and out of bedroom doors, but instead there should be three bedrooms, presented on the stage simultaneously, the stories competing with one another. In 1973's The Norman Conquests, Aykbourn decided that when his characters flee one room (the garden, for example), they should run to another room (let's say the living room) and continue their action there. To do this, he wrote three complete, connected plays and ran them all simultaneously, and the audience could follow characters from room to room, or sit still, or, presumably, wander out into the street and stare at traffic for a while.
With Communicating Doors, Aykbourn has decided to take this one step further still. What if his characters fled a room, he asks, only to find themselves back in the room, but 20 years earlier? So the play begins in 2014 in a hotel room in dystopian London, where a brash dominatrix (Alayne Hopkins) overhears the deathbed confession of an aged mobster (the ever-gruff Stephen D'Ambrose) that he had his two wives killed by his business partner, Julian (a deadpan Peter Gregory Thompson). Unfortunately for this dominatrix, the business partner happens to be on hand and proves none too keen on the notion of her telling anyone what she's heard. She flees through a door and, presto! There she is in the same room, 20 years earlier, with the mobster's last wife (an unflappable Cathleen Fuller), on the very night of her murder. Another pass through the door brings them to the same hotel room, but now in the Seventies, the night of the mobster's honeymoon with his first wife (Karen Webber, dressed like a Fembot from Austin Powers). They decide that this is an opportunity to change time in whatever manner pleases them, and, by another amazing coincidence, all three decide that they would like to change time in such a way that they do not get murdered. This being a farce, the script calls for a typhoon of total hilarity to descend onto the stage.
And so it does, as Aykbourn indulges in every pratfall and humorous dido known to man. Characters trip over furniture, or accidentally tumble out of windows, or wheel bodies from room to room, or stumble into a relatively innocent situation that, because of misplaced timing, instead seems outrageously sexual--another classic farcical technique that in this case reached its modern-day apogee in a televised production called Three's Company. The cast of Communicating Doors runs through this obstacle course in vigorous form, and in the end everybody gets to laugh about it, audience included.
For all its physical dexterity, though, this show reveals some tongues in need of proper exercise. Which is to say that none of the accents seem altogether right. I have begun to wonder if theater schools even teach accents anymore. Even the best actors in this city seem capable only of two styles of English speech: Eliza Doolittle cockney (demonstrated by Alayne Hopkins in this production) and chinless wonder upper class (demonstrated by the remainder of the cast). Having seen more than my share of British gangster movies, which were clearly the model for Aykbourn's writing here, neither accent seems particularly appropriate. Where is the bullying, gruff Estuary accent, so common in London, that Bob Hoskins always affects? What about the comical Northern speaking style found in so many caste-afflicted English-movie hoods? Why not try the expressive, tonally challenging Welsh brogue, just for variety? I mean, if the Twin Cities can have two William Randall Beards, can't we have more variety in our onstage accents?