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Alan Ayckbourn on love and death in ‘Life of Riley’

British playwright and director Alan Ayckbourn received a Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2010.

Richard Drew/Associated Press

British playwright and director Alan Ayckbourn received a Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2010.

Three years ago, when Zeitgeist Stage Company produced Alan Ayckbourn’s “Private Fears in Public Places,’’ numerous theatergoers — especially British expatriates — told artistic director David J. Miller they were pleased to see a company focusing on a later work by Ayckbourn rather than one of his oft-staged early comedies.

Since then, Miller has made sure that each Zeitgeist season includes an Ayckbourn play: “My Wonderful Day’’ in 2011, “Time of My Life’’ last year, and, starting Friday, “Life of Riley.’’

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The production, directed by Miller, will make Ayckbourn the most frequently produced playwright in Zeitgeist’s 12-year history, eclipsing Edward Albee. “Life of Riley,’’ which premiered in England in 2010, is Ayckbourn’s 74th full-length play. He has since written three more.

“The later works have kind of a darker undercurrent beneath the comedy,’’ observed Miller.

That’s an apt description of “Life of Riley.’’ The title character, George Riley, is dying, and never makes an appearance onstage. But we do see the disruptive effects he continues to have on those around him, including his estranged wife, an ex-lover, and a host of friends.

The Globe interviewed Ayckbourn, 73, by e-mail.

Q. One British reviewer noted that you’ve now written twice as many plays as Shakespeare. What is the key to remaining as unflaggingly prolific as you’ve been for as long as you’ve been?

A. I am fortunate in having a ready supply of ideas and themes that I want to develop, although the initial idea always needs, in my case, a series of “sub-ideas” before it becomes anything substantial. These can be occasionally the “where,” sometimes the “when,” and always the “how.” That is the location, the time span, and the characters and plot. As for the sheer number of plays, well, I ran a theatre for 40 years or so and had a great deal to do with the scheduling! There was always a slot somewhere in the season for a play of my own. Sometimes in retrospect I wonder whether the play I wrote that particular year really justified its inclusion but in general, thank God, we had more hits than misses.

Q. It always seemed to me that the American television comedy “Frasier’’ owed a significant creative debt to you. “Frasier’’ featured a persnickety character — Niles Crane’s wife, Maris — who was constantly referred to but never seen for 11 seasons. In “Life of Riley,’’ the title character is unseen but plenty active nonetheless, and indeed is the straw that stirs the drink, plot-wise.

A. The offstage character is not a new device but then, of course, very little in playwriting is. It’s all been done before. It simply depends on how you do it this time. Though I’ve written dozens of incidental offstage characters who never appear, George Riley is different in that he is my main protagonist. All the others’ lives and loves revolve round him. He needed therefore to be different things for different people, almost mercurial. I decided early on that the only way to write such a person was to create him entirely through the eyes of others, that way he could be contradictory and enigmatic. To saddle some luckless actor however charismatic with this task would, for many audience members, only result in disappointment.

Q. We learn early in “Life of Riley’’ that George Riley has at most six months to live. Does a character’s impending death, and the sense of mortality that consequently hangs over the play, lend an urgency to the proceedings in a way you find intriguing or helpful as a dramatist?

A. Yes, I believe it does. His imminent death focuses the other characters’ minds greatly. They all knew him closely either as friend or lover. And by featuring an offstage character, it helps to distance the audience from the event, leaving them free to observe those close to him. Which was always my intention.

 Brooks Reeves and Angela Smith are part of the cast of Zeitgeist Stage Company’s production of Alan Ayckbourn’s “Life of Riley.”

Joel Benjamin

Brooks Reeves and Angela Smith are part of the cast of Zeitgeist Stage Company’s production of Alan Ayckbourn’s “Life of Riley.”

Q. Leaving aside the question, which I’m sure you find wearisome, about whether and to what extent your plays are at all autobiographical, do you need to identify fairly strongly with at least one character when you’re writing a play in order to get your motor running?

A. All my characters have something of me in them. None are purely autobiographical though some admittedly are closer to me than others. Who am I to tell? Like George Riley you will have to ask my friends that.

Q. The themes of marital malaise and infidelity among the middle class are prominent in “Life of Riley.’’ Is marriage an especially fertile topic for a playwright like you because it can contain elements of comedy and poignancy alike, or perhaps because someone’s essential nature can be revealed when his or her marriage hits the rocks?

A. I think marriage is one aspect of it. Though I’d like to widen that to include all human relationships within a family. Husbands, wives, parents, and children, and occasional lovers. Drama relies on friction. The old chestnut holds true, name one happy marriage in the works of Shakespeare? Happy marriages are not attractive to playwrights. People sitting around smiling, contentedly enjoying each other’s company, may be wonderful in real life but they don’t make for good theatre. Fortunately for us dramatists many wives drive men insane whilst a lot of wives grow profoundly disappointed with the man they married. Not all children bring infinite joy and many reduce their parents to tears. And as for parents . . .

Q. “Life of Riley’’ seems, in part, to be about life-as-theater. Within the play the characters are rehearsing an amateur production of your own “Relatively Speaking.’’ Is the chance to add a meta-layer or two part of the fun and challenge for you after spending so many years of your life in the theater?

A. It was technically effective to link the protagonists through a drama group headed by (another) unseen character, their director. Yes, true the play is concerned with the roles we play. Looking back I think it was a bit cheeky of me to make the play they were all rehearsing one of my own. But as one critic, failing to recognise it as “Relatively Speaking,” wondered in their review what the dreadful piece they were rehearsing actually was, I suppose I got what was coming to me.

Interview has been condensed and edited. Don Aucoin can be reached at
aucoin@globe.com
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