(Left to right) James Black as Julian and Julie Sharbutt as Phoebe in the Alley Theatre’s production of Communicating Doors.

Image: John Everett

Communicating Doors
Thru April 25
$26–80
Alley Theatre
615 Texas Ave
713-220-5700
alleytheatre.org 

Communicating Doors—which opens this week at the Alley Theatre—begins with a middle-aged businessman named Julian (James  Black) opening the door to his posh London hotel suite and inviting in a mysterious woman wearing an overcoat and blonde wig who introduces herself, in an exaggerated Cockney accent, as Poupée (French for puppet). Poupée (Julie Sharbutt) strides in, drops her bag on the floor—it makes a clatter like it’s filled with metal objects—and takes off her overcoat, revealing a dominatrix outfit. She assumes she’s been hired by Julian, but her real client turns out to be his business partner Reece (Jeffrey Bean), a doddering old man who isn’t interested in sex and, after getting Julian out of the room, only wants Poupée to witness his signature to a confession of his own financial chicanery and, more alarmingly, of encouraging Julian to murder Reece’s first two wives.

Just as Poupée is signing the confession, Julian bursts in and discovers what Reece has done. To escape Julian’s wrath, Poupée opens a door in the suite that she assumes leads to the adjoining hotel room but is in fact a time portal. When she emerges from the other side, she finds herself in the same room 20 years earlier, where she runs into Reece’s second wife, Ruella (Josie de Guzman), on the exact day Poupée knows she will be murdered.

Got that? In case you think I’ve spoiled the plot, I should mention that all of this takes place in the first 15 minutes of a two-and-a-half-hour play. Veteran English playwright Alan Ayckbourn, who wrote this farce in 1994, must have worried that the plot would be hard to follow, since about every 10 minutes he has one of the characters recap the play’s events. This quickly grows tiresome—it’s as if the audience is constantly being reminded of what happened in earlier episodes of a television show they’re in the midst of binge-watching.

(Left to right) Josie de Guzman as Ruella and Julie Sharbutt as Phoebe in the Alley Theatre’s production of Communicating Doors.

Image: John Everett

This is the Alley’s 11th production of an Ayckbourn play, and it’s easy to see why the playwright is such a company favorite: his humor is broad, his taste is terminally middle-brow, he doesn’t ask much of the audience, and he gives the Alley’s actors a chance to speak in fake British accents. Not that the company’s flaccid production, directed by Gregory Boyd, does Ayckbourn any favors. Like a shark, a farce has to keep moving or it dies. Many of the playwright’s gags might have been passably comical at full speed, but Boyd seems have directed his cast to speak as slowly and deliberately as possible, lest the audience miss a single one-liner. (As a result, an already too-long play feels even longer.)

Frequently, the actors turn directly to the audience to deliver their zingers, which would be fine if the zingers were a little more, well, zing-y. (Poupée: “I heard you were a good person.” Ruella: “That’s because you’ve never seen me play bridge.”) There are a few inspired bits of physical comedy, but even the Alley’s typically adulatory audience seemed to tire of the stale sex jokes after about the one-hour mark. Turns out that you can laugh at the pronunciation of Poupée only so many times.

As advertised, Communicating Doors is a curious generic hybrid—it’s a comedy that isn’t funny, a thriller that doesn’t thrill, a murder mystery without mystery, and a science fiction story that doesn’t make much sense as either science or fiction. Its ham-handed treatment of the familiar dilemmas of time travel—if you change something in the past, does it alter the future?, etc.—makes Back to the Future seem downright subtle. 

The production’s highlight is the set design (as is too often the case at the Alley these days), this time featuring an ingenious revolving time-travel door by set designer Linda Buchanan and a backdrop that shimmers and changes color depending on what year the characters are visiting. Company actor Todd Waite steals the show as an officious hotel detective—he’s the comic relief to the comic relief—but like everyone else in the cast he’s forced to deliver his lines as if he were spoon-feeding jokes to an audience of hearing-impaired nonagenarians. By the end of the play, the only communicating door I wanted to go through was the one leading out of the theater.

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