Ayckbourn in New York (2009)This article briefly by Simon Murgatroyd was written in 2009 and explores Alan Ayckbourn's experiences on and off Broadway with his plays.
When Alan Ayckbourn’s new play My Wonderful Day transfers to New York in November, it will be a remarkable first for the playwright.
For no Ayckbourn play has ever transferred to New York immediately following its world premiere.
It only serves to emphasise how the perception of Alan and his plays has undergone a renaissance in America’s theatre capitol, led most recently by The Norman Conquests in 2009 but with the foundations laid by Alan’s own transfers of Private Fears In Public Places in 2005 and Intimate Exchanges in 2007.
The image of Alan as the master British farceur has been quickly dispelled with critics re-appraising the writer and the plays with many now quick to draw comparisons with Chekhov. Such a transformation of fortunes is all the more astonishing given the rather patchy history Alan has with New York and Broadway.
The first attempts to transfer Alan’s play to New York date back to 1967, the year Relatively Speaking opened to extraordinary success in London. Such success drew the attention of producers across the Atlantic and long and hard negotiations were initiated to bring the play to Broadway. The already difficult process was made even harder by an insistence that the young playwright’s play needed to be Americanised for it to be a success. That this approach was doomed from the start can only be highlighted by the famed example of the line “I can’t say I’m taken with this marmalade” becoming “This marmalade is a freak-out.”
At which point, one suspects Alan’s interest in seeing the play on Broadway dipped significantly. Despite the ‘best’ intentions of the producers Relatively Speaking never made it to Broadway and its first professional New York production was only recorded in 1984!
The first Ayckbourn play to reach the Great White Way was How The Other Half Loves, although this was How The Other Half Loves seen through the lens of Robert Morley. He had played Frank Foster in the London production of the play and had dominated what was intended as an ensemble comedy. The American producers, having seen Morley in London, were thus convinced it was a star vehicle and promptly brought in Phil Silvers to revive his flagging post Sergeant Bilko career. Alan has fond stories of working with Silvers, but he was as ill-suited to the role as Morley and his abject lack of confidence in his own abilities (ironic considering his popularity and success in television) did the play few favours during its run in 1971, which ended up losing the producers $170,000.
It was followed in 1974 by easily the most successful and popular transfer of an Ayckbourn play to New York for the next 25 years. For Absurd Person Singular, the wise decision of hiring the London production’s director, Eric Thompson, was made. He assembled a strong cast and the play was a hit with the critics and audiences, running for 592 performances, making it the most successful comedy on Broadway by a British playwright since Noël’s Coward’s Blithe Spirit in 1941. That is not to say there weren’t problems as the producers were convinced the play’s acts were in the wrong order. Unable to grasp the concept of the play’s dying fall and that the funniest scene was the second, they presented Alan with statistics showing how there were more laughs (themselves divided into categories of laughter) in the second act which meant it should be transposed to the final act. Alan knew there were more laughs in the second act, had intended it to be so, but the producers were still not happy and notified Alan they had the rights to alter the play as they saw fit and the acts would change. At which point, Alan’s formidable agent Margaret Ramsay made it clear that despite what they might believe the producers had absolutely no rights to alter the structure of the play. There was no argument (and if there had it would not have been pretty). The play was produced as intended and reaped the dividends.
The success of Absurd Person Singular led to a quick take up of The Norman Conquests in 1975 again with Eric Thompson assuming the director’s chair as he had for London. Unfortunately the cast was not quite so good this time round and the trilogy struggled to have the same impact. It did well enough but was largely shrugged off by the critics, some of which did remarkable volte-face when they reviewed the 2009 revival of the play and had nothing but praise for the quality and significance of the plays.
If nothing else, the trilogy achieved the distinction of making Alan the first playwright to have four plays performing simultaneously on Broadway (alongside Absurd Person Singular). For one day in March 1976, 45th Street was renamed Ayckbourn Alley in honour of this achievement and the trilogy would also go on to win the Drama Desk Award for Unique Theatrical Experience.
It would be 1979 before another Ayckbourn play found its way onto Broadway when the National Theatre toured Bedroom Farce to the USA. This play marked the first time Alan would direct a play in the West End and, consequently, the first play he directed in New York. The play had arrived in America on the back of phenomenal success in London and expectations were high. The reviews were generally excellent. Box office less so. No-one could quite explain it but Alan felt the play did not satisfy the expectations of what an American audience expected the National Theatre to present. It was nominated for Tonys for Best Direction and Best Play though marking the first - and last - such nominations for an Ayckbourn play for 28 years.
More than a decade later, British director Alan Strachan - now considered one of the pre-eminent directors of Alan’s plays - premiered Taking Steps in the Circle In The Square theatre in 1991. It was a good production of the play and arguably the first time the New York production of a play was superior to the West End production. Alan Strachan undoubtedly did the play better justice than the flawed 1980 London production which met with a damning critical reception.
The following year Manhattan Theatre Club also presented A Small Family Business on Broadway, one of the rare instances of any professional production of this challenging take on British society in the 1980s. The Manhattan Theatre Club was also responsible for the New York off Broadway premieres of several other Ayckbourn plays, most notably Woman In Mind. It featured Stockard Channing as Susan, best known in recent years as her role as the President’s wife in the TV series The West Wing, and met with considerable acclaim. She won the Drama Desk Best Actress Award and the production remains as one of the rare occasions when an Ayckbourn play has transferred successfully to New York with an American cast; this is not to say American casts do not perform Ayckbourn well, generally though you need to look at regional theatre rather than New York for successfully produced Ayckbourn plays with American companies.
The Manhattan Theatre Club was also responsible for the New York premieres (all off Broadway) of: Absent Friends in 1991 which featured a young Gillian Anderson who went straight from the play into the hit television show The X Files and international fame; Comic Potential in 2000, in which saw Janie Dee reprised her Olivier award-winning role as the android Jacie Triplethree to great acclaim; and finally House & Garden in 2002.
2001 saw Alan himself return to Broadway to direct his and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical By Jeeves at the Helen Hayes Theatre. The play opened in the aftermath of 9/11 and nearly did not go ahead when many of the investors pulled out as a result of the uncertainty surrounding the events of that tragic day. Fortunately, alternative investment was found and the musical opened on 16 October with Martin Jarvis playing the role of Jeeves and John Scherer as Bertie Wooster. It ran until 30 December and was well-received during a difficult period for the New York theatre-scene. This production was also adapted for television and DVD with Alan stepping behind the camera as director for the first time.
Alan returned to New York in 2005 with the American premiere of Private Fears In Public Places. Invited to take part in the Brits Off Broadway festival, he brought his Scarborough company to the 59E59 Theaters in what was potentially a risky financial move for the Stephen Joseph Theatre - particularly with a play so uncharacteristic of the playwright. Advanced ticket sales were steady if unspectacular until the reviews came in. Led by Charles Isherwood’s extraordinary tribute to the play in the New York Times which heaped praise on the production and described the company as the best in New York, the reviews ensured the play became the hottest ticket in town and a sell-out. Alan’s profile rose immediately and there were even plans for him to return to New York to direct it with an American company. Although casting was competed for the play, a decision to move the production from an intimate off Broadway venue to a larger, less appropriate venue led to the production being vetoed. In all likelihood the best decision as Alan was never going to receive any better notices than those he had received during the festival.
Several months later and perhaps with unfortunate timing, Absurd Person Singular was revived by Manhattan Theater Club on Broadway. The critics came in from two fronts; those that had fond memories of the original Broadway production and those who had seen Private Fears In Public Places and appreciated just how an Ayckbourn play should be directed and acted. Even the very best production would have struggled to step out of either of those shadows.
More successful was another transfer from Scarborough when Intimate Exchanges (in its entire 16 permutations) joined the Brits Off Broadway festival in 2007. The two hander received extremely good reviews (with the two actors receiving high praise) and it broke box office records at the 59E59 Theaters. Alan’s reputation was at a high in New York and soon to be buttressed even further.
In 2009, The Norman Conquests transferred to Broadway following its critically and commercial success at The Old Vic theatre. Directed by Matthew Warchus, with unflagging support from the Old Vic’s artistic director Kevin Spacey, the play arrived at the Circle In The Square theatre on a wave of anticipation on 25 April for a limited run. By the time, it closed on 26 July it had amassed the single highest amount of awards any single production of an Ayckbourn play has ever received. Amongst these was Alan’s first Tony, awarded for Best Revival. Its success and interest in the trilogy generated large amounts of media attention for both the trilogy and Alan, although as several critics pointed out, New York was rather late to the party as regional American theatres had been producing strong productions of Alan’s plays for a number of years and already knew the quality of Alan’s work.
Now the stage is set for My Wonderful Day to transfer to New York following the trail blazed by The Norman Conquests earlier this year. Who knows whether it will repeat the success of the previous two Ayckbourn plays at the Brits Off Broadway festival? Ultimately though, the transfer has its own rewards regardless of anything else, for how many playwrights can say their play transferred straight from a regional theatre Scarborough to New York?
Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.