Done by Deadline

— Some writers thrive on deadlines, with the egg-timer ticking or a nine-milly pointed at their brain. Noel Coward penned Private Lives in three days, in a bathtub, he says. William Saroyan allegedly locked himself in a hotel room with a case of bourbon and a typewriter and wrote The Time of Your Life in a week.

In 1994, Sir Alan Ayckbourn had promised to write a play but hadn't penned a word. Then in three days he wrote a first draft of Communicating Doors, an intricate, farcical thriller about time-traveling, murder plots, and unlikely heroes. Four days of buffing and evicting later, he handed the finished script to his actors for a readthrough.

Budding young playwrights will hear this and assume the task's just a breezy, headlong flow. It isn't (read Moss Hart's Act One). Or rather, it could be if, like Ayckbourn, you've had 46 of your plays already produced, have streamlined your process down to a spec, and have never offended your muse.

Communicating Doors starts in 2027. Gunfire rages across the river from London's five-star Regal Hotel. We don't know who is fighting whom, only that Reece Wells, a 70-year-old, international robber baron, is behind it. He is also dying and has called for a hooker -- not for dalliance, it turns out, but to confess his sins, including world havoc and the murder of two wives.

Enter Poopay Dayseer, blond wig, black leather-clad "specialist sexual consultant." Though her job deals with fantasies, she's ill-prepared for this one. When Reece's evil henchman, Julian, tries to murder her, Poopay runs through an "intercommunicating" door between suites. But, it turns out, the door also connects space and time. Lime-lit and humming, it whirls Poopay 20 years into the past, where she meets Ruella, Reece's second wife on the eve of her demise.

Though opposite in many ways, Poopay and Ruella have one thing in common: each is a survivor -- Poopay, of the mortar-blasted streets of 2027; Ruella, of the penthouses of 2007 -- whose life's been threatened. As, they learn, has Reece's first wife, Jessica. The spinning doors "communicate" with her, too, on her honeymoon with a spry and cavorting 30-year-old Reece, in 1987. The three women, each an unlikely hero, not only transcend time, they rise above their limitations and save each other's lives.

San Diego has so much theater now it's near impossible for a critic to see a show twice. Prime-time slots get filled sometimes months in advance. Last week I had a free night and went to Cygnet Theatre's Communicating Doors, which I'd seen, and thoroughly enjoyed, on opening night. Along with having a good time, I went for two reasons: to inspect Ayckbourn's craft and to see how the show had grown.

Ayckbourn's long been drawn to what Thomas Pynchon, in Against the Day, calls "bilocation": people being in different places at the same time (or the same place at different times). Ayckbourn's Bedroom Farce unfolds in three different rooms simultaneously; Absurd Person Singular, three kitchens on three different Christmas Eves. This split-screen technique gives audiences a rare perspective, a kind of partial omniscience that invites comparisons and ironies.

Communicating Doors builds on Ayckbourn's previous experiments. Here he combines farce, his forte, with danger -- and shows what a fine line separates the two (and the laughter's different: instead of "oh those poor saps," in farce, it's "oh those poor dears" in a thriller). The play also has signs of hasty writing, however. Adlai Stevenson said if he had to write an hour-long speech, he could do it in five minutes, but a five-minute speech would take days. Doors has "hour-long speech" symptoms. Some sections could use a trim, and it raises questions throughout, especially about the time-travel device: Why 20-year gaps? Why can't the males use it? Why doesn't the hotel suite change over 40 years?

The Cygnet production, sharp and funny three weeks ago, has grown a great deal. The top-notch cast, unlike Ayckbourn, has honed their performances and made new discoveries (to their credit, they never milk the jokes; they are characters first, throughout). As Ruella and Poopay, Sandy Campbell and Jessica John both flourish -- some of their best work ever. And Tim West, who plays three different Reeces, has turned the play's last scene into a heart-tugger.

Cygnet's Doors had grown so much, it recalls the reviewer's bane: it's too bad critics can't review a show, say, two weeks into its run, when it's settled in, moving at its own chosen speed, rather than on opening-night deadline; to see it without the egg-timer clacking away, the pistol uncocked. I know...I know...the box office thing, but still...

Communicating Doors, by Sir Alan Ayckbourn

Cygnet Theatre, 6663 El Cajon Boulevard, College Area

Directed by Esther Emery; cast: Jessica John, Sandy Campbell, Manny Fernandes, Tim West, Craig Huisenga, Brenda Dodge; scenic design, Nick Fouch; costumes, Shulamit Nelson-Spilkin; lighting, Eric Lotze; sound, M. Scott Grabau; composer, George Ye

Playing through September 23; Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Matinee Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-337-1525.

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