Towards the end of Arrivals & Departures, Alan Ayckbourn’s seventy-seventh play (the author is seventy-five), the military handler Ez (Elizabeth Boag) tells Barry (Kim Wall), the man she is handling, that they have nothing in common. “We’ll never know now, will we?” Barry asks, a line that epitomizes Mr. Ayckbourn’s central concern. In the main action of Arrivals & Departures, a terrorist named Cerastes (Ben Porter) is being cornered by the Strategic Simulated Distractional Operations by diverting his train to an empty station and catching him when he exits. In order to succeed, members of the S.S.D.O. must dress up as regular commuters—as mothers and sons, as confused foreigners—to create the illusion for Cerastes that he is walking through an ordinary crowd. In other words, they must put on a play. Barry is a provincial traffic warden who tried to ticket Cerastes several days ago, and thus he is there to identify their man. Ez is a sensitive soldier who was date raped by her fiancé and whose subsequent lashings out have lead to her dismissal from the army. But Barry will never know this, just as she will never know that his ingenuousness caused the downfall of his father-in-law’s company and gave his wife the opportunity to conduct a long lasting affair with his best man. As the two engage in an initially cold but successively warmer conversation, their memories are performed in flashback on stage: in the first act, we see how Ez’s mind responds to what is going on and in the second, we delve into what Barry is thinking in the same space of time.
Like the Modernist novelists of the first half of the twentieth century, Mr. Ayckbourn reveals that the greatest dramas occur in the minds—the internal narratives as compared to the S.S.D.O. “play” makes a particularly effective tableau—and like Virginia Woolf in particular, he reveals that moments that appear insubstantial to the outside observer can have tremendous emotional impact on its participants. Arrivals & Departures is a quietly experimental, absolutely heartbreaking work, and as the loneliness of these two people played out onstage, I kept hearing E.M. Forster’s famous epigraph to Howards End ringing in my ears: “Only connect.”
Mr. Wall’s excellent Barry is a man whose incessant friendliness never succeeds in masking a hunger for companionship, his sad chuckles and his small-town eccentricities all the more tragic because they are utterly indefatigable, they are unable to break down in the face of his selfish loved ones. Ms. Boag, too, wears her mask well, and Ez cynically hardens in the face of niceties, even when they come from such genuine sources as Barry. The two are an extraordinary pair of actors, generous and challenging, reminding one of a well-executed duet.
“Do try and merge,” orders Quentin (Bill Champion), the head of the D group of the S.S.D.O., when Ez and Barry are first placed together. Beneath this executive jargon is Mr. Ayckbourn’s plea, one that unfortunately will never be answered.