Filled with confidence, the “Jeopardy” contestant picks “Theater for $1,000.”
The answer: It’s a play in which a recently deceased spouse, summoned by a spiritual guide, returns for a visit — with hilarious results.
“What is, ‘Blithe Spirit,’ Alex?”
“No, no. ‘Life and Beth’ was what we were looking for. ‘Life and Beth.’ ”
It’s easy to see why someone might confuse Alan Ayckbourn’s 2008 chuckler “Life and Beth” with the famed Noël Coward play. Ayckbourn has acknowledged as much and followed many of the contours of “Blithe Spirit” with a few key changes: The ghost is a husband who is more of a nuisance than a wife bent on revenge; and he is summoned by a vicar’s unwitting prayer rather than a bumbling spiritualist’s seance.
The prolific Ayckbourn, never the bon vivant that Coward was, has nonetheless surpassed the prince of dry British wit with 70 full-length plays, many originating at Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, England, where Ayckbourn was artistic director from 1972 to 2009. His “Norman Conquest” trilogy won the Tony for best revival in 2009, and a year later he was given a Lifetime Achievement Tony.
“Life and Beth” makes its Twin Cities debut in a production directed by Dann Peterson at Theatre in the Round. It might seem odd that an Ayckbourn premiere didn’t draw the interest of a larger theater — Jungle or Park Square, say — but TRP long has been fond of English comedy. It produced Ayckbourn’s 1973 play “Round and Round the Garden” last July.
“This is my fifth Alan Ayckbourn show for the arena,” said Peterson. “It was one of the choices of the play-reading committee, and I went right to it.”
Still at work
Ayckbourn, 73, has slowed down a bit in recent years. “Life and Beth” was his first play after he suffered a stroke six years ago, and he has followed it up with a few more. But his work is no longer greeted with the same urgency in London’s West End as it once was. “The Norman Conquest” trilogy, “A Chorus of Disapproval,” “Absurd Person Singular” and “Communicating Doors” just skim the surface of his output.
“Life and Beth” is the last leg of a trilogy that started with “Haunting Julia” in 1994 and included “Snake in the Grass” in 2002.
“This has a lighter touch,” Peterson said. “He sees death as just a way of moving on, the progression of life.”
Ayckbourn is sometimes referred to as Britain’s Neil Simon, which means only that he — like Simon — is his nation’s top living comic playwright. But while Simon finds his characters through one-liners and situations, Ayckbourn often leans on concepts.
“I really like the way he plays with time and space,” said Peterson. “It’s not so much in this one, but ‘Taking Steps’ and ‘How the Other Half Loves’ show that.
“In this one, he does something with the supernatural, bringing someone back in time.”
While “Life and Beth” is not “Blithe Spirit,” Peterson said there is stage trickery and suspense.
“Ayckbourn said that other than making people laugh, the greatest reward for him in theater is making people jump,” Peterson said.