Life of Riley
There is, of course, such a thing as the English Drawing Room play. But how about the English Garden Play? Such is the effective genre of this comedy by Alan Ayckbourn, who sets "Life of Riley" in a number of gardens (with the occasional indoors scene, though these too are played on an out-of-doors style set).
Helming this production for Zeitgeist Stage Company, director David J. Miller embraces a sense of the bucolic and plays the outward calm of the British against the grinding passions the characters keep bottled up. Miller's scenic design evokes the play's garden settings and, together with Michael Clark Wonson's lighting, makes one feel rather like one is enjoying a mild English afternoon in many of the scenes. But don't be fooled about the deeper currents that are at work: Double standards, gender roles, and a sometimes fussy relationship to time -- the measure of our mortality -- all add to an underlying sense of angst.
"Life of Riley" also partakes of another genre, that of the "absent title character," such as Kevin Elyot's "My Night with Reg." Like Reg, Riley -- his first name is George -- has a tremendous effect on those in his social circle. Though we do not glimpse Riley directly, we get something of a sense of him from the gravitational effect he, not unlike the planet Jupiter, has on everyone around him.
Riley's oldest and closest friend is Jack (Victor Shopov), a doting dad to his daughter Tilly (Alana Osborn-Lief), though he has, in recent months, been stepping out on his wife Tamsin (Shelley Brown). Tamsin has been cast in a play together with Kathryn (Maureen Adduci) and her husband Colin (Peter Brown), who is a doctor -- in fact, he's Riley's doctor. When Colin lets slip to Kathryn that Riley has cancer and is going to die in a few months, word is all over their tight-knit little circle in a flash.
Looking for something to offer Riley as a distraction from his impending mortality, the friends make use of a cast defection to offer Riley a part in the play. That's when old flames (Riley and Kathryn) and new ones (Riley and the seething Tamsin) start to crackle, provoking Colin and even Jack to heights of worry and even rage.
We are also introduced to Riley's ex-wife, Monica (Angela Smith), who has done her best to break things off cleanly and for good with Riley. His illness tugs at her, though, and she responds out of sympathy, putting at risk her relationship with Simeon (Brooks Reeves), an earnest and slightly dour farmer whom Monica says, with no little relief, that she can "read like a book," in contrast to Riley's often inscrutable affect.
Ayckbourn's script weaves and binds story threads expertly, and braids strands of drama and farce into a unified whole. He gives himself the time, and the creative canvas, to allow his characters and the plot to roil and gyrate. What that means is that this is a long and chatty play, replete with sexual electricity but also with a moseying Englishness. It's a charming thing, in a way; a scent of lavender clings to the two and a half hour running time, and it feels like the play is paced with deliberate dedication to resist being rushed. It's a far cry from the more fashionably hard-charging plays of which we see so much. Depending on your taste, or even your mood, that could seem a blessing... or not. At the same time, there's a cinematic cleverness in how multiple settings are depicted at the same time simply by having cast members who are supposedly in one locale sit right next to cast-mates meant to be across town.
There's only one real gripe here: The cast attempt English accents, a choice that proves distracting instead of realistic. The play would lose nothing if the actors were simply allowed to speak in their usual manners.
"Life of Riley" continues at the Boston Center for the Arts, located at 539 Tremont Street, through March 2. Performance schedule: Wednesdays and Thursday evenings at 7:30; Friday and Saturday evenings at 8; Saturday and Sunday afternoons at 4. For more information, please visit zeitgeiststage.com