Arts » Theater

The case of the time-traveling dominatrix

The cast and crew of American Heartland Theatre's Communicating Doors make it easy to suspend disbelief in this convoluted plot.

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Alan Ayckbourn has written about a zillion plays, and American Heartland Theatre is counting on the scribe's ingenuity to deliver what the company has been lacking of late: a solid play. Communicating Doors, at least the third Ayckbourn work AHT has staged, is pretty close.

Ayckbourn delights in the manipulation of time and space. In other Ayckbourn shows the Heartland has produced, one, How the Other Half Loves, had actors entering and exiting neighboring apartments without acknowledging one another; the other, Henceforward, featured a tart robot as its ingenue. You have to trust that Ayckbourn's whimsy will trump his cockeyed themes, and the ones chosen by the Heartland were largely successful.

Communicating Doors is partitioned into a science-fiction time-travel saga and British farce that by the end becomes more like a warm TV movie from The Family Channel in spite of the dominatrix at its center. Yet its spry cast has fun with Ayckbourn's topsy-turvy view of the world.

It opens in the year 2024, with the leather-clad dominatrix, Poopay (Carrie Dobro), hired to seemingly inflict pain or humiliation on Reese, a dying entrepreneur (Tom Woodward). Despite the mocking of Reese's smarmy assistant, Julian (D.G. Fleming), Poopay is determined to get the job done. Unknown to Julian, however, Reese wants not sexual gratification from her but atonement. He's got a crushing secret -- a last wish to rid his conscience of his culpability in the deaths of his first two wives, Ruella (Deborah Van Valkenburgh) in the year 2000, and Jessica (Cynthia Hyer) two decades before that.

Poopay's task is to merely listen and absolve; she's like a priest with a cat-o'-nine-tails. She's a simple girl, though, and becomes uncomfortable when someone toys with her script. She flees into what is supposedly a closet, only to be whirled back in time to the same hotel suite on the night Ruella was murdered. After Poopay convinces Ruella she is not insane but rather in possession of life- (or death-) altering information, the pending victim also gives the closet a spin. On the other side of the door: her predecessor, Jessica, on the night of her and Reese's honeymoon.

If it all sounds convoluted, give Ayckbourn, director Mark Ciglar, and the cast their due. Although the 20-minute set-up is lifeless (save Poopay's patent leather hot pants and punishing boots), once that threshold is literally crossed, the script's nimbleness rocks the audience wide awake. A suspension of disbelief is required to pull it off, but that's one of the missions of art in any medium -- to make it easy for us to look at the impossible and believe. Who would have thought Jennifer Lopez had catchy dance tracks in her?

Much is made in the Heartland's advertising of Dobro's and Van Valkenburgh's past gigs in, respectively, the culturally suspect television series Crusades (a Babylon 5 spin-off) and Too Close for Comfort. More tellingly, their bios are chock-full of theater credits, and both women give bountifully to their roles. Van Valkenburgh is especially winning, knocking back a few stiff shots of brandy and then, without an inch of dignity whittled away, getting wrapped in a bedspread and hurled over a balcony and back again. Dobro is more palatable as a softer Poopay; her tantrums send her voice into a shrill register that is at odds with the characterization she has parlayed to that point.

Yet it's not entirely a two-woman show. Hyer, Fleming, and Charles Frank (as a hotel security guard in two of three decades) have fine moments, while Woodward gets the S.O.L. role of Reese. As such, he has to play both the ages of 30 and 70, and only the former works. But then no actor has ever grabbed a cane, acquired a stoop and shuffle, and convinced anyone of his antiquity.

For a reputedly plush hotel suite in London, Keith Brumley's set is quite drab. A desk, a faux Victorian chair, and a fern or two do not a suite make. He gets it right it with the chandelier, though, and no hotel room for those with modest budgets ever had a bidet (which figures prominently in the plot). Shane Rowse's lighting is noticeable mostly when the doors of the title are activated, and Mary Traylor's wigs and costumes have a simplicity to them that isn't particularly subtle, though they work just fine.

Communicating Doors
through June 25

at American Heartland Theatre
Crown Center, 2450 Grand

816-842-999

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