Director George Black doesn't seem to know what to do with the unusual mix of science-fiction, farce and murder mystery that is "Communicating Doors," now playing at TheatreVirginia. It's a complex, genre-busting play that screams for an exuberant and multifaceted approach. Unfortunately, Black's production is as flat as a pancake. Only in fits and starts does some antic edginess shine through, but such glimmers are lost whenever the play shifts gears.
And shift it does, and often, too. The clever little gimmick that playwright Alan Ayckbourn has employed here keeps the play literally spinning through time. In the year 2020, a call girl, Poopay (Jennifer Regan), is summoned to a fancy London hotel suite by a dying man, Reece (Oliver Wadsworth). While there, she discovers that when she steps through the door that should lead to the adjoining room, she is transported back in time 20 years. She lunges through this door while trying to escape a murderous businessman, who she knows has killed before. Finding herself in the past, she tries to change circumstances to prevent the murders from happening. She ends up altering the future all right, but in many unexpected ways.
As all the plot twists twirl their way out, the production seems intent on becoming a screwball comedy, particularly given Regan's enthusiastic and amusing portrayal of Poopay. But Black's ponderous pace prevents any comic momentum from building. When the play takes its final turn into a feel-good, family drama, you're left wondering if lukewarm schmaltz was what the director was shooting for all along. And if so, why did he have a house detective (Daryl Clark Phillips) running around draped with women's underwear in an ill-conceived comic moment just a few minutes before?
This production excels in several scenes that feature Regan and actress Nicole Orth-Pallavicini, who plays Reece's second wife, Ruella. The erudite and heroic Ruella is the perfect complement to the flighty, clumsy Poopay. Their comfortable chemistry makes the discovery and exploration of the time-traveling doorway and the scheming over how the portal should be used interesting and even fun. Scenes near the play's end where Poopay explains "virtual sex" and transitions into a new identity are also a hoot.
But a bit of balcony mayhem that should be a hilarious highlight is staged so that most of the action is indecipherable. Characters like Reece's first wife (Julie Fulcher) and Harold, the house detective, come across as half-slapstick and half-realistic, muddying the waters even further. And Peter Kybart's portrayal of the bad guy, Julian, is just odd, as he chooses to project a certain haughty befuddlement in the place of homicidal zeal.
Even TVa's top-flight designers seem to have pulled back a notch with this one. The set (designed by Douglas Huszti) is functional but, besides a stunning London backdrop visible over the balcony, generally nondescript. The lighting effects (by John Carter Hailey) that accompany a trip through the doors get the point across but don't dazzle. I'm not sure what Black was trying to communicate with "Communicating Doors," but whatever it is, it doesn't come across.
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