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Theater review: Alan Ayckbourn's 'Life of Riley' at the Old Globe

May 9, 2011 | 12:30 pm

Riley Rehearsals for the next amateur theatrical production are cause for high spirits among the circle of acquaintances depicted in "Life of Riley," Alan Ayckbourn's 74th play. If the lines that they practice sound familiar, it's because they're from the English playwright's breakthrough success, 1965's "Relatively Speaking."

 "I've done this play three times before," one character mentions, another cheeky little reference to the popularity of the comedies written by the prolific 72-year-old.

Enough of that popularity has crossed the Atlantic to establish a fan base in the States, although the faithful often are frustrated to find their local theaters sticking to the same narrow range of time-tested titles, rather than a recent, unseen one. So the Old Globe's U.S. premiere of "Life of Riley," which entered the canon just seven months ago, has his Yankee devotees almost giddy with excitement.

In addition to being an expression in common parlance, the title nods toward the play's agent of action. George Riley goes unseen and unheard, but we learn this much about him right way: He doesn't have long to live. When the news reaches the home where the night's play rehearsal is to be held, the husband's reaction is just the most extreme example of what everyone is feeling. "Why George?" he wails when what he means is, "Why me?" The grief that these people experience is really for themselves, now that they're hyper-aware of how brief an opportunity yet remains to achieve perfect fulfillment.

Relationships, of course, are a key part of that fulfillment. We meet three couples, and for each, daily life has drifted into a general malaise of taking the other person for granted. Riley's impending fate might shake that up, especially as it begins to loosen secrets from the past and set a few new ones in motion.   

The action unfolds on four lawns, each delineated with sly specificity by designer Robert Morgan. Notice, for instance, the expensive but tacky patio set favored by the most ostentatious couple. Morgan does the same with his costumes, sending cues so casual that many of them register only  subliminally.

The same might be said of Richard Seer's direction, which hovers at the edge of perception until some stray detail enters your consciousness and makes you chuckle.

Mostly American, the performers don't come naturally to the accents or the dry English sense of humor, which causes a slight disconnect. Colin McPhillamy, who trained in London, clicks with the material most completely. He plays a recognizable Ayckbourn type: the square, thickheaded, forever baffled husband. He's a treat. So too is Dana Green, portraying a wife whose good heart is obscured by some questionable wardrobe and hair dye choices, and whose increasingly shrill behavior is provoked by a husband (Ray Chambers) who may love her desperately but can't manage to be faithful.

Ayckbourn is the sire of what might be considered a more intellectual cousin of the British sex farce. His plays are funny, but quietly, craftily so. "Life of Riley" is a perfectly reliable continuation of that brand, its parade of human vulnerabilities sure to leave viewers taking stock of their own.

-- Daryl H. Miller, from San Diego

"Life of Riley," the Old Globe's Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, Balboa Park, San Diego. 7 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays, with some exceptions. Ends June 5. $29 to $67. (619) 234-5623 or Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

Photo: From left, Henny Russell, Dana Green, Colin McPhillamy and Ray Chambers in the U.S. premiere of Alan Ayckbourn's "Life of Riley" at the Old Globe. Credit: Henry DiRocco / The Old Globe