We gave it a B+
”Careful the things you say, children will listen”: Composer Stephen Sondheim built a beautiful ballad on that sentiment in the 1987 musical Into the Woods. And crafty British playwright Alan Ayckbourn has unleashed its full comic potential in My Wonderful Day, his 73rd — yes, 73rd — play. (This Off Broadway production, directed by the 70-year-old author himself, has been imported from his home base, the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, England.)
My Wonderful Day tackles a familiar Ayckbourn theme: adultery. But this time, the men and women behaving badly operate under the watchful gaze of 8-year-old Winnie Barnstairs (played sensationally, and completely believably, by twentysomething actress Ayesha Antoine). Her about-to-burst pregnant mom Laverne (Petra Letang) brings Winnie to work — she’s a cleaning woman — and plants her on a pricey sofa to do her homework, an essay entitled ”My Wonderful Day.” ”Mrs. Tate’s pride and joy, this sofa,” Laverne coos, sending up the theatrical equivalent of a smoke signal: Something is going to happen to this sofa! Adding to the hilarity of the impending destruction is the fact that the sofa is hideously ugly. Ayckbourn’s characters, whatever their financial situation, inevitably have the most dreadful taste in home furnishings. Anyone who saw last spring’s Broadway revival of The Norman Conquests will concur.
Little does Mrs. Barnstairs know that while she’s Hoovering, wide-eyed Winnie is collating a novel’s-worth of R-rated material, thanks to horny hubby Mr. Tate (Terence Booth), his squeaky-voiced mistress Tiffy (Ruth Gibson), their hungover mate Josh (Ayckbourn fave Paul Kemp, whom NYC theatergoers may recognize from 2007’s Private Fears in Public Places), and the suitably enraged Mrs. Tate (Alexandra Mathie). At various points, the last three characters suffer hysterical tear-filled breakdowns in front of helpless little Winnie. To amp up the amusement, Winnie rarely speaks. As she later explains to Mrs. Tate, ”parce que ma màre veut que je pratique mon français” (my mother wants me to practice my French). Or, as she explains to the audience, ”ma mère est une loonie” (well, you probably got that one).
It’s a rare writer who can wring fresh laughs out of two-timing spouses and slutty secretaries, but somehow — time and time and time again — Ayckbourn manages it. His men are so endearingly stupid — watch in wonder as Josh tries to beg, then guilt, then steal a chocolate bar from Winnie (wonder who’s going to win that battle). And the women are wonderfully clever; the wife always knows when her husband is having a bit on the side, so presumably she has time to prepare a torrent of insults like: ”you greasy slut,” ”you dumpy bitch,” ”you hussy,” ”you shameless little whore,” ”you cheap tramp,” ”you podgy strumpet,” and (a personal favorite) ”you pathetic, half-baked tart.”
At the end of Winnie’s ”wonderful day,” we are treated to an excerpt of the girl’s essay, which includes such juicy tidbits as ”Mr. Tate let us in. He was dressed in his dressing gown and no pyjamas and his bare feet even though it was half past eight and…I saw that he needed to cut his toe nails.” One only wishes we could hear more! Yes, we’ve seen the entire day, condensed into 100 merry minutes. But now we want to hear Winnie’s — that is, Ayckbourn’s — color commentary. Grade B+
(Tickets: Ticketcentral.com or 212-279-4200)