If the cantankerous family birthday celebration at the center of "Time of My Life" is really the high point of anyone's life, then this is indeed a bleak universe.
Not to worry, though: It is a universe created by Alan Ayckbourn, the prolific and amazingly skilled British playwright. Ayckbourn's feats of observation can be counted on to jazz an audience, not bring it down.
Now at the Old Globe Theatre, Ayckbourn's 1992 play is not in the first rank of his work. In his 40-odd plays, Ayckbourn has rarely gone over the same ground, but "Time of My Life" resembles his 1987 play, "A Small Family Business," a funnier and more deeply fanged depiction of an apparently prosperous family that is rotting away at the core.
Still, if "Time of My Life" seems slightly reheated, it offers more insight into a distinct family pathology in its first scene than most plays do in an evening. (Look, for instance, at "Puddin 'N Pete," another family drama at the Cassius Carter theater next door.)
As the matriarch Laura, Sada Thompson is a terrifically august battle-ax in a purple suit. Laura's malevolence radiates through the lives of her two sons, who strangely worship her. Glyn (a visibly crumpling Don Sparks) has been crushed by Laura's undisguised view of him as second-rate. But Laura does even more damage to her adored Adam (Peter Krause), a good-looking young cipher who drifts from career to career with the help of his mother's everlasting faith and frequent handouts.
Laura's support of Adam does not extend to his choice of fiancee, a socially ambitious hairdresser named Maureen (Jennifer Stratman). A woman who normally favors orange-pink permed hair and burgundy fringe, Maureen tames her act when meeting Adam's family, proprietors of a large building concern. But although Laura's immediate disapproval of her rekindles Maureen's fighting spirit, the young hairdresser just doesn't have the stuff to bust a world-class maternal vise grip.
Ramon Bieri (who resembles a more corpulent Michael Gambon, the patriarch in "A Small Family Business") plays Gerry, the father whose power has slowly been usurped over the years by his formidable spouse. Bieri is quite good--his gruff but warm portrayal offers the possibility that the family would be a lot better off if Gerry were the true head of it.
Glyn's wife, Stephanie, seems another casualty of family business. Yet, in Lynne Griffin's lovely performance, Stephanie has unseen resources that allow her to transform herself from a doormat who can't even get a waiter to bring her the right kind of water to the only family member to escape the weight of Laura's crushing assessments.
"Time" flits backward and forward in time, inventively displaying the prelude to and aftermath of the fateful birthday celebration that opens the play. All scenes take place in Essa de Calvi, an eating establishment of undetermined ethnicity, the kind of restaurant that Calvin Trillin called Maison de la Casa House.
Five comic waiters intrude on the family's meals and lives, all of them played by Tom Ramirez, who fluidly changes from the supercilious headwaiter Tuto, whose wrist is always floating balletically in the air, to a hunched-over grumbler who exits to the waiter's station whenever somebody calls for a menu.
Greg Lucas provides the excellent set, a restaurant whose terra-cotta faux European charm is belied by a prominent grate that leaks something sticky and by visible piping. It pinpoints the exact station in which its middle-class patrons belong.
Two eleventh-hour speeches about the meaning of happiness seem gratuitous and obligatory, but these are quibbles. Ultimately, the play delivers a devastating family mess with Ayckbourn's trademark light touch.
Director Craig Noel elicits fine performances all around, and he has clearly helped Thompson find the play's darkly comic center. She is wonderful. Don Sparks also scores as a husband who can never seem to look his wife directly in the eye.
Ayckbourn has a way of letting family dynamics rise to the surface of a scene, which allows the audience to feel it is discovering the important details for themselves. This is a rare and lovely pleasure. For this reason, even second-rung Ayckbourn is worth seeing. "Time of My Life" delivers that pleasure.
* "Time of My Life," Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park, San Diego, Tuesday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday matinees, 2 p.m.; Sunday, 7 p.m. Wednesday matinee on April 19, 2 p.m. Ends April 23. $21-$36. (619) 239-2255. Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes.
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Sada Thompson: Laura
Ramon Bieri: Gerry
Don Sparks: Glyn
Peter Krause: Adam
Lynne Griffin: Stephanie
Jennifer Stratman: Maureen
Tom Ramirez: Others
An Old Globe Theatre production. By Alan Ayckbourn. Directed by Craig Noel. Sets by Greg Lucas. Costumes by Christina Haatainen. Lights by Kent Dorsey. Sound by Jeff Ladman. Stage manager Peter Van Dyke.