With “Life of Riley,” Zeitgeist Stage Company returns to the relationship comedy of British playwright Alan Ayckbourn, which it does so well. David J. Miller’s deft direction finds just the right blend of tragedy and hilarity in Ayckbourn’s play about three couples coping with the news of their mutual friend’s impending death. In a clever twist, the friend, George Riley, never appears onstage, but the havoc he wreaks on the others’ lives becomes fodder for great comic drama as they rally round. Of course, George has a reputation for being immature and irresponsible: One character describes him as a kind of hippie Peter Pan.
All of the people in George’s life are at low points in their marriages: Kathryn (Maureen Adduci), wed to dull doctor Colin (Peter Brown), has become a secret drinker; Tamsin (Shelley Brown) seethes as she waits for her husband, Jack (Victor Shopov), to end his latest affair; and George’s wife, Monica (Angela Smith), has left him for the stability of a taciturn farmer (Brooks Reeves).
To keep George busy during his final six months, Jack encourages him to take part in the amateur production the friends are putting on — the play happens to be Ayckbourn’s “Relatively Speaking” — but gets concerned when he hears that George and Tamsin rehearse the love scenes with great enthusiasm. Kathryn, who was George’s lover long ago, becomes nostalgic for that relationship and steps in to nurse him, and even Monica decides to leave the farm to help him through his final days. As the women compete for George’s attention, he invites all three on vacation with him, to the shock and dismay of the men in their lives.
Miller’s tight focus on the characters and graceful overlapping of locations create an intimate connection to those places and these people. He also gets some superb performances from his ensemble, including the always excellent Adduci. Her Kathryn has all the smart, snarky lines, but Adduci consistently underplays them, making the laughs even bigger.
Costume designer Fabian Aguilar decks out Tamsin in a series of deliciously flashy outfits, but Shelley Brown always lets us see the hurt and generosity underneath Tamsin’s obsession with appearance. Peter Brown is appropriately bland in the first act as the emotionally absent Colin, but finds unexpected depth in the second act, when Colin struggles with his wife’s interest in another man.
“Life of Riley” is Ayckbourn’s 74th play, and while it treads familiar territory, his ability to capture the foibles of human relationships once again feels fresh. Thanks to the Zeitgeist Stage Company’s first-rate production, all of the poignancy and humor of Ayckbourn’s characters comes across.
Terry Byrne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.