For a play that centers around the conceit of time — more specifically, time travel — it’s remarkable how poorly “Communicating Doors” has aged.
First penned by playwright Alan Ayckbourn in 1994, the play centers around a charming premise: Three women from different time periods must travel through time in order to foil their would-be murderer. It’s a story that aims to be both comedic and thrilling, but the script’s reliance on outdated tropes and slow-developing plot condemns the play to be only occasionally funny and only sort of thrilling.
Though Center REPertory Company’s production of “Communicating Doors” boasts excellent production design and a talented cast, it’s not enough to overcome the questionable choices made throughout; namely, the punchlines, staging and narrative developments that consistently work to undermine the show’s female characters.
“Communicating Doors” is set in 2023, with dominatrix-for-hire Phoebe (Sharon Rietkerk) meeting her aging client Reese (Charles Shaw Robinson), who asks her to sign a confession enumerating how his business partner Julian (Robert Sicular) murdered his last two wives. Before Phoebe can leave with the confession, Julian enters and attempts to murder her — an attempt that is made unsuccessful when Phoebe hides in the suite’s “communicating door” (which, for the non-British, is just a door between two rooms). She re-emerges in the same suite, 20 years prior, face to face with Reese’s second wife Ruella (Julie Eccles). Thus begins the women’s shared quest to stop Julian’s crimes, skittering between the same hotel room during 2023, 2003 and 1983 in an effort to change their futures.
From this very first scene, Phoebe’s character is mishandled, featuring a distasteful joke about how rare it is to find “an honest whore” and a bit where her inability to defend herself against her attacker (despite her dominatrix title) is played for laughs.
And it really only gets worse from there, with the production seemingly hell-bent on keeping Phoebe in as little clothing as possible. She’s ordered to take off her coat and remain in lingerie in the first scene, later borrowing Ruella’s coat only to inexplicably take it off between scenes. In the second act, she strips down to her underwear onstage because she decides she’d like to change outfits.
The rest of the play’s comedy relies on uncomfortable tropes as well. Several gags revolve around how Julian is “up the other side of the ladder” and has a crush on Reese. If it wasn’t already concerning enough that the show’s only cartoonishly evil character is coded as queer, audiences are also treated to sophomoric jokes about threesomes and “lesbianic relationships” — mentions of queer identities sprinkled in only to be used as cheap gags.
Perhaps most inexplicable of all is the ending; the play wants to sell itself as feminist, depicting three women banding together to take control of their futures, but it turns out that each woman’s happy ending is dependent on the redemption of Reese (who, by the way, was fully game for his wife’s murders right up until he was on the cusp of death).
If the play featured a truly suspenseful plot, it would have been easier to forgive these unsavory quips and story beats, but it trucks along at a pace that is much too leisurely. The audience figures out several key plot twists long before the characters do, stretching the dramatic irony past its limits and eliminating the element of surprise as the crowd waits for the characters to catch up.
The play does, however, have a saving grace in the form of its cast. Eccles is delightfully droll as the hardheaded Ruella, and Brittany Danielle earned the biggest laughs of the night as Reese’s bubbly first wife Jessica. It is thanks to these actresses, along with Rietkerk, that the slapstick sequences involving Phoebe, Ruella and Jessica are so undeniably lively.
It’s a shame that such talent is positioned within a work that is in desperate need of an update. Suffice it to say that while “Communicating Doors” technically passes the Bechdel test, it doesn’t exactly do so with flying colors. The show’s premise rests on the importance of female bonds, but the script is too busy laughing at these women’s expense to make these bonds feel real.
If only time travel did exist — perhaps a female director could have imbued this zany premise with some genuine fun.
Grace Orriss covers theater. Contact her at [email protected].