Alan Ayckbourn at the Brits Off Broadway (2012)

This article from 2012 explores Alan Ayckbourn's regular visits to the Brits Off Broadway festival in New York and the success he has enjoyed with his productions there.

Tomorrow evening sees the American premiere of Alan Ayckbourn’s acclaimed latest play Neighbourhood Watch as part of the Brits Off Broadway festival.
In the past seven years, Alan’s plays have become a bi-annual fixture of the festival proving to be successes for both him and the 59E59 Theaters.
Yet prior to 2005, as discussed in yesterday’s article, Alan’s plays had had very little impact in New York and truth be told, it had been more than thirty years since his one bona fide Broadway hit.
In 1974,
Absurd Person Singular opened in New York at the Music Box Theatre, directed by the London production’s director Eric Thompson, and would go on to break the record for the longest running comedy on Broadway by a British playwright.
Theoretically, the floodgates should have opened with this leading to even more success, in the same way
Absurd Person Singular led to success upon success in the West End.
But it didn’t.
The Norman Conquests performed unexceptionally on Broadway and although there were subsequent successful Ayckbourn productions in New York such as the National Theatre’s tour of Bedroom Farce in 1979 and The Old Vic’s transfer of The Norman Conquests in 2009, most failed to have any major or lasting impact.
So there was no reason to believe that touring his most recent play from the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough to a small off-Broadway festival in 2005 was going to make any sort of waves.
Yet when
Private Fears In Public Places opened at the Brits Off Broadway festival, it was met with some of the most extraordinary reviews of the playwright’s career, including an astonishing review from the New York Times, which amongst many plaudits spotlighted the “first-rate, frill-free acting” of Alan’s company.
Box office records at the 59E59 Theaters were broken and Alan noted, ”Seats were at a premium. The little box office wasn’t used to the lines around the block.” [1]
The company of six actors were compared to many of the Broadway heavyweights and at the end of the year the production featured in a host of top ten theatre lists including the New York Times and Times magazine. The production also garnered an Outstanding Director nomination at the Drama Desk Awards.
For Alan, it was an unexpected and extraordinary response to the play.
“It was a sort of vindication, like a life’s work unwasted. You slog away doing what you hope is good work up in the north-east but you never really know. But to be put up against that level of competition, in that sort of cauldron of critical mayhem which I have experienced over time... In New York the knives are very long indeed when they’re long. If you’ve got a failure in New York, try to get the first plane out.
“I wasn’t prepared for anything like the response.” [1]
The success of
Private Fears In Public Places made a return visit to the Brits Off Broadway festival practically inevitable and Alan had already mentioned he was keen on returning in a couple of years time.
What wasn’t inevitable was that less than a year after returning to work from his stroke in 2006, he would take one of his most challenging and ambitious works across the Atlantic.
His revival of
Intimate Exchanges was an epic experience for any venue; two actors playing 10 roles in a branching play with 16 possible permutations and more than 30 hours of dialogue in total.
This play was taken over to New York in its entirety. The complexity of the play posed a challenge for 59E59 Theaters and a few pleasant surprises. When interviewed about the production, the 59E59 Theaters Artistic Director Elysabeth Kleinhans noted how initially packages to see the different permutations were not offered and had to be created due to public demand.
“Who’s going to see all those plays in five weeks,” she said. “It’s ridiculous, right? I’m an optimist, but I never expected this.” [2]
Reviews again proved to be extremely favourable and it received Drama Desk nominations for Outstanding Play and for Outstanding Actor for Bill Champion. Time Magazine once again naming it as one of the top ten productions of the year.
Alan Ayckbourn’s plays were finally getting the recognition they deserved on the New York stage aided, it was regularly observed, by the quality of Alan’s acting company.
For Alan, the festival also finally meant being able to visit New York on his own terms. One of the appeals of the 59E59 Theaters to him is the small scale of the venue and the fact the festival welcomes his production with his company.
“It’s the sort of theater I recognise and am happy with,” noted Alan in 2009. “I would be far less happy a few blocks down in a big Broadway theater. As unhappy as I would be in London on the West End.”[3]
2009 brought with it the third visit to the festival, following in the wake of the high profile transfer of The Old Vic’s acclaimed 2008 production of
The Norman Conquests to the Circle In The Square theatre. This was arguably the most successful Broadway Ayckbourn production since Absurd Person Singular and was showered with major awards including the first Tony award for an Ayckbourn play.
In direct contrast to the large three-play scale and fame of
The Norman Conquests, Alan brought his latest, understated play to Brits Off Broadway with My Wonderful Day. This day observed through the eyes of a mostly silent nine year old schoolgirl was again tremendously successful, receiving excellent reviews and garnering Drama Desk nominations for Outstanding Play and Outstanding Actress for 28 year old Ayesha Antoine’s performance as nine year old Winnie.
And so, two years on, Alan Ayckbourn is again returns to
Brits Off Broadway with his latest play, Neighbourhood Watch, and earlier this year noted why the visits to New York had become significant to him.
“We take a show from Scarborough to New York with the same company and the same production and it gets fantastic reviews. When we there with
My Wonderful Day in 2009, people were screaming out of their minds with praise and that is good for Scarborough and the theatre. It gives the company, not to say me, a little shot in the arm occasionally.”[4]
There is no doubt the success of Alan’s productions at the festival have been instrumental in increasing the awareness and appreciation of his plays in New York and the USA. It’s also hard not to believe too that their success was not also a key part in the decision to award Alan the prestigious Special Tony Award For Lifetime Achievement in Theatre in 2010.
So tomorrow night all eyes will be on the 59E59 Theaters to see whether
Neighbourthood Watch can follow in the same successful steps as its predecessors.
Although one suspects to Alan, this is far less important than the opportunity the
Brits Off Broadway offers to present his work on the New York stage as he intends it to be seen with the spotlight thrown on the play and his actors and the quality of their work.

[1] Interview with Louise Jury, 6 January 2006, The Independent
[2] Interview with Mark Blakenship, 27 May 2007, New York Times
[3] Interview with David Cote, 18 November 2009, Time Out
[4] Interview with Simon Murgatroyd, June 2011

Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.