Stephen Joseph Theatre

at the 1994 International Theatre Festival of Chicago, Merle Reskin Theatre

Alan Ayckbourn’s 46th play is far from his best. In depth of character and satiric bite it lags behind such works as A Chorus of Disapproval, Absurd Person Singular, and The Norman Conquests. But as trifles go, Communicating Doors is more than passably entertaining–an upbeat, offbeat stew of farce, thriller, and fantasy that showcases Ayckbourn’s resident company, Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre.

Communicating Doors starts out like an unusually kinky episode of Are You Being Served?, a 70s British sitcom that airs here on Channel 11. The initial encounter between a frail old man and an S and M hooker named Poopay (the name is French for “puppet,” she insists) leads us to expect an evening of smarmy sex comedy based on the gulf between desire and performance, a staple of British music-hall humor. And a superficial description of the play’s climax–three women scramble to keep from falling off a hotel balcony, leading a hotel detective to suspect lesbian lasciviousness–might suggest one of Ray Cooney’s naughty farces. But Communicating Doors is also a comic thriller that generates tolerable excitement and laughs by toying with the damsel-in-distress tradition–and a feminist fairy tale that relies on fantasy to make its dreams come true.

Ostensibly called to a posh hotel to give a dying businessman, Reece, one last thrill, Poopay–a leather-clad dominatrix with a heart of mush beneath her jaded facade–discovers she’s actually there to witness the old man’s signed confession of culpability in the murders of his two wives. The wealthy Reece, embodying the passive amorality of Thatcher’s England, allowed his ruthless business partner Julian to make them both rich through shady trading and war profiteering; it was only a short step from there to homicide, to prevent Reece’s wives from blowing the whistle. Now–in 2014, a year in which London’s various boroughs are locked in civil war–the repentant Reece wants to share his guilt with the world. Julian naturally prefers otherwise, and targets Poopay as his next victim.

Trying to escape, Poopay flees through a communicating door to an adjoining hotel suite–which turns out to be the same suite she just left, only it’s 20 years earlier. There she encounters Reece’s second wife, Ruella, on the very night she’s to be killed by Julian. And when Ruella tries the magic door herself, she’s transported back another 20 years, meeting Reece and his first wife, Jessica, on their honeymoon.

Can the three women together change history? Count on it. Despite a string of momentary threats–often announced by shrieking strings straight out of Psycho–Communicating Doors purveys an upbeat vision of life in which women team up to transform men and the mess they’ve made of the world. The women even transform each other, as they learn from the others’ examples the best and worst they’re capable of.

Ayckbourn has described this play as “a sort of Hitchcock version of Back to the Future.” But the Hitchcock evoked here is the master in his declining years. John Pattison’s pseudo-Bernard Herrman sound track notwithstanding, there’s more of Family Plot here than of Psycho, for better and for worse. Gentle whimsy and laid-back wackiness compensate for erratic pacing and an overly tricky plot: suspenseful setups routinely prove to be red herrings.

Though it fails to explore the moral issues raised by its premise–taking responsibility falls by the wayside as the characters get bogged down in explaining time travel–Communicating Doors is an amusing showpiece for the cast, something the pragmatic Ayckbourn always emphasizes. Liz Crowther brings an appealing feistiness to Ruella, who emerges as the women’s leader, and her chiffon-and-sandpaper voice, recalling Glynis Johns and Dorothy Tutin, is the quintessential English comic actress’s voice, making the dialogue a treat to listen to. Adie Allen is delightful as Poopay, the wanton whip wielder who melts like butter under Ruella’s influence; Sara Markland is convincing as Jessica, a 70s airhead confronted by an incredible situation; John Hudson’s grim-visaged, guilt-haunted Reece blends horror and humor with Dickensian panache; and Richard Durden as the homicidal Julian is a scary-funny psychopath. Their crisp interplay makes Communicating Doors playful fun; now it’s up to Ayckbourn to make it more than that.