MY WONDERFUL DAY at the Wilma Theater: Pretty Wonderful

by Michael Schwartz

It sounds simple enough—in the world of comedy, if someone assures you that something isn’t going to happen, it has to happen. And if someone tells you absolutely not to do something, you have to do it—except, of course, that’s also how tragedies work. Then there’s the rule of surprise—the audience will laugh at an unexpected phrase or twist that catches them off guard. On the other hand, there’s the often unsurpassed giddiness of knowing exactly what’s coming, and waiting for the payoff. The point is that there’s actually nothing simple about comedy, and it’s hard work getting it right. At the Wilma Theater’s production of Alan Ayckbourn’s MY WONDERFUL DAY, I laughed harder, with more embarrassing laughing noises, and with more frequency, than I have in a long time. That’s because Ayckbourn, director Richard Hamburger, and a nearly flawless comic cast got it right.

Kate Eastwood Norris and Lavita Shaurice in MY WONDERFUL DAY at the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia. (Photo credit: Jim Roese)

Ayckbourn, knighted in his native England for service to the theatre after writing some 75 plays, is rather less well-known in America, although his trilogy The Norman Conquests recently enjoyed a well-received revival on Broadway. In this play, which made its U.S. premiere off-Broadway, Ayckbourn takes a subject he’s visited before—an affair and its effects on an unstable marriage—and lets an innocent outsider bear witness to escalating shameful and shameless behavior. The outsider is 9-year-old Winnie (a winning Lavita Shaurice), the daughter of proud (and very pregnant) Anglo-Caribbean house cleaner Laverne (Opal Alladin). Laverne is cleaning the house of Kevin and Paula (David Andrew Macdonald and Kate Eastwood Norris), a successful entertainment couple whose marriage proves more of a mess than an army of house cleaners could manage. Winnie’s school assignment is to write an essay that gives the play its title, and she gleefully transcribes the marital and extra-marital disasters that inevitably follow. Ayckbourn allows most of the hapless players, including Kevin’s mistress Tiffany (Kelly O’Sullivan) and his alternately loyal and resentful friend Josh (John Zak), a few moments to confide their insecurities and vulnerabilities to Winnie, who for reasons best left unexplained, is trying to speak only French for the day (even if you’re not up on your French, you’ll still get it). The play manages to encompass some wise observations about class distinction and condescension, as well as how adults relate (and fail miserably to relate) to impressionable children, while providing plenty of full-throated farcical laughter.

Director Hamburger neatly and surely accelerates when appropriate and lets the play breathe when necessary, and he’s helped by an ingenious rotating set designed by Lee Savage that accentuates the comic action. The Wilma’s cast comes through splendidly on all counts, starting with Ms. Shaurice, who might overdo her child-like reactions ever so slightly, but certainly never seems to be the young adult she is in real life. Ms. Alladin offers strong support as Winnie’s mom, with a natural humor that undercuts the potential pathos of playing a pregnant single mother. Mr. Macdonald gives us a joyfully and unashamedly self-absorbed Kevin, and it’s hard to say if Ms. Norris is funnier as Kate when she lets her anger fly or when she is trying desperately hard to contain it. Mr. Zak as Josh finds any number of amusing ways to be a defeated sad sack. Ayckbourn might be hardest on Tiffany, the hopelessly out-of-her-element mistress, but Ms. O’Sullivan proves capable of giving us a character both comically nitwitted and touchingly insecure. To conclude, if you visit the Wilma Theater during the run of MY WONDERFUL DAY, you’ll have, yes, a wonderful time.

By Alan Ayckbourn
Directed by Richard Hamburger
May 25-June 19, 2011
The Wilma Theater
265 S. Broad Street
Philadelphia, PA 19107

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