Private Fears in Public Places
Lonely people populate Private Fears in Public Places, yet their story is told by Zeitgeist Stage Company’s current production with such affection you’ll be more empathetic than chilled. Excellent performances from a perfect-pitch cast and direction that moves the story along quickly so you don’t get bogged down in anguish brings Sir Alan Aychbourn’s witty script to life in exactly the key he intended.
The melancholy comedy follows over the course of a few weeks the intertwined lives of six Londoners seeking personal connection in this congested, cosmopolitan city of some seven million strangers. These are the lonely people the Beatles sang of in "Eleanor Rigby," the post war generation where status counts but fails to provide the comfort it once did. Ayckbourn’s exploration of these middle-brow Brits differs from the Beatles, however, in the playwright’s finding humor as well as pathos in their frailties.
The six people include a quarrelsome couple Dan and Nicola, who lack the cash for the apartment they seek in the tough London market. Their demands strain Stewart, their dutiful real estate who shows Nicole place after place. Dan, in the midst of a mid-life crisis, avoids this task and pretty much every thing else by spending an inordinate amount of time at a hotel bar where his drinks and converses with Ambrose, a milquetoast bartender.
Stewart is infatuated with his his assistant, the prim Charlotte, who is more interested in godliness than romance, spending her spare time caring for Ambrose’s cranky, invalid dad. (Rick Park provides the off stage voice for the obstreperous dad). Rounding out this motley group is Imogen, Stewart’s sister, who is found sitting in cafes waiting for pre-arranged dates that don’t show up.
However, who these people really are and who they present themselves as differs, sometimes wildly.
Addressing Sir Alan Ayckbourn’s stylistically cinematic written script, Director Miller beautifully segues its 54 short scenes into a coherent 110-minute drama. Miller himself provides an apt scenic design that suffices in its simplicity while enabling the action to shift in a whisk from the bar to the real estate office to the bartender’s home and so forth. The atmosphere is greatly helped by Chris Fournier’s lighting design and Walter Eduardo’s sound design. Fabian Aguilar has dressed the characters appropriately which has a surprising range as the story unfolds.
Michael Steven Costello is convincing as the imbibing Dan whose worries about what Dad thinks suggest his alcoholism masks a certain infantilism. Nevertheless, like many a heavy drinker, he can be a clever and engaging conversationalist (until he falls headlong into the bar). As Nicola, the woman he’s been with for many years, Christine Power gives a lovely nuanced performance as she tries to push life with Dan forward against the tide.
Robert Bonotto makes the perfect invisible man in his role as the real estate agent, while Shelley Brown as his sister Imogen, who has yet and may never connect with a man of her dreams, is a character out of Saroyan’s The Time of Our Lives, albeit the British version. Becca A. Lewis, is utterly entertaining as the goody two shoes Charlotte who has a character quirk that verges on being a page from The Three Faces of Eve. Most poignant of all is the mousy bartender, for whom romance is a book already closed, a perfectly stated performance from Bill Salem.
Private Fear in Public Places was originally staged by Ayckbourn at the helm in 2004 at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, England (a splendid two-auditoria arts complex Ayckbourn developed with his mentor and friend Stephen Joseph as a permanent home for the theater company the two had worked with since 1972). Ayckbourne has written some 70 plays, most of them first done in Scarborough before they go on to London and elsewhere. A production of Private Fears in Public Places came to New York in 2005 as part of the Brits Off Broadway festival, which is where Miller saw it. There has also been a film adaptation (2006) set in a snow bound Paris, Coeurs, directed by Alan Renais (Last Year in Marienbad) available on DVD.
The play works superbly well in the Plaza Black Box at the Boston Center for the Arts. Private Fears in Public Places continues through March 6 in the Plaza Black Box Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts, 539 Tremont St. in Boston’s South End.