British playwright Ayckbourn chronicles a path to terror, through his "Communicating Doors" in Berkeley's Live Oak Theater!

Photo: Harold (Bill Chessman), hotel security chief, tersely interrogates unauthorized room occupant, Poopay Dayseer (Claire Stevenson) in "Communicating Doors" Photo by: Anna Kaminska

Do you like murder mysteries, detective stories, crime stories, even if they are slightly spooky, unnerving, perhaps even a little outer-worldly bizarre, or slightly psycho, such as those in the Twilight-Zone style? What about complicated, multilayered, thought-provoking criminal jig-saw puzzles? Well, I’ve got one for you that pretty well meets all of the above criteria and even has a three dimensional time plot with a comedic twist and a surprising happy ending?

BACKGROUND: In June 1993, Alan Ayckbourn provided the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, in Scarborough, England, with information on a new and as yet unwritten play to be entitled, “Private Fears In Public Places.” His description in his promotional brochure for the play was: "At the airport, Jessica waves a fond farewell to her husband. Then a chance encounter changes her life. How well does she know the man she married? How much can she trust him? How well does she know, how well can she trust herself?" As Ayckbourn had discovered previously, the path to any promising plot is often torturous and difficult to navigate. But this time, the plot simply fell apart at every juncture. It was a shock when just weeks before the production staff was to meet to begin coordinating the play readings, Ayckbourn turned up at the theatre advising them that they were probably going to have to do a revival of one of his earlier plays because his writer’s block had completely thwarted the “airport-set play”.

Unexpectedly, he had an idea for a time-traveling comedy thriller, so he notified the theater that there would be a new play after all, a new play called “Communicating Doors”. Then, in one week’s time, he wrote this newly conceived play, a play which would go on to become one of his most successful and frequently restaged plays, both at home and abroad. The only thing similar to his previously promised play was that his main character in the new play was still named Jessica.

“Communicating Doors” starts off as a light and unexpectedly optimistic play which asks the question, what is behind the communicating doors in hotels? You know, the locked door that if unlocked, would should allow ingress and egress to the adjoining suite. Alan's answer was not simply an “entrance to the adjoining suite”, but a “doorway through time!” In Ayckbourn’s clever, multilayered murder mystery comedy, three women find themselves traveling back and forth through time to save each other’s lives from a sadistic murderer.

Starting in the year 2014, a young prostitute, Poopay Dayseer (Claire Stevenson), is ushered into the hotel room of an ailing Mr. Reese by his long time business partner, Julian (Mark Holobetz), purportedly to service the 70 year old Reese (Lee Vogt). She soon discovers that she has actually been tricked into being summoned to Reese’s room for a whole other purpose, that of being a witness to a murder confession, and not to engage in any sexual activity. When she discovers that Mr. Reese is actually confessing in a secret hand written document he shows her, that “his partner, Julian”, has murdered numerous people to perpetuate their business prosperity, wealth and lavish lifestyles, Poopay freaks out, wanting out of this room, now! Realizing that knowing these details could make her expendable, she makes several unsuccessful attempts to escape through the front door, and finally succeeds by going through the communicating door between hotel rooms, where she simply disappears, - - - without the signed confession.

As the door closes behind her, Poopay now finds herself in what appears to be an identical room (which she thinks is the room next door). The occupant of this room, Ruella (Carol Reyes), is startled to now find a provocatively dressed young woman in her presence and demands to know what she is doing there. Thinking the young woman is a nut-case or a thief, Ruella reluctantly decides to hear her out, and what she hears is a shocking tale with an all too familiar ring. As Poopay continues spilling out the details of her previous encounter with Reese and Julian, and the detailed confession, Ruella realizes that the man she is talking about is actually her husband, Reese, who is supposed to be out of the country at the moment. Ruella, it turns out, is the second wife of the aforementioned Mr. Reese, a wife who was supposedly (according to the confession Poopay had read only a short time before) murdered by Julian, in 1994 in this very hotel suite. It turns out that the hotel in which this suite is located is one of Mr. Reese’s many property holdings, so he and his former wives and business associates have stayed in this luxurious suite whenever they have been in town. The fear becomes even greater as Poopay reads a newspaper and discovers that this day’s date is actually 20 years earlier (1994), than it was when she went through that communicating door a few minutes earlier! Poopay has actually arrived on the eve of the second Mrs. Reese’s murder, in the very room where it was to have occured!

Puzzled and curious, Ruella, still not believing Poopay’s bizarre story, decides to go though the communication door herself. Not knowing what she will find, she too is shocked to find that she is back in the same room, but now it is 1974, where her husband, a now much younger Reese, is on his honeymoon with his first wife, Jessica. Her husband is asleep in the bedroom of the suite, but Ruella encounters the very young, first wife!

Realizing that by some strange occurrence, this communicating door is actually a time portal, she manages to leave the room and its stunned occupant and returns to her own time, in the same room, through the same communicating door. She and Poopay (whom we learn has a real name of Phoebe), discuss their options and quickly decide to attempt to retrieve the signed and witnessed murder confession (still hidden in the same bedroom, forward in Poopay’s original time, in 2014). But they soon discover that Poopay can only go back and forth in time from 2014 to 1994 and Ruella can only go back and forth from 1994 to 1974, a 20 year span for each of them. This means that they can never travel together or share the same time period, except for 1994, making their plans to help and protect each other more difficult. The play continues with more time travel and numerous frightening moments occurring for both. But, with the help of a rather confused hotel security officer, Harold (Bill Chessman), they manage to survive some close calls and solve some of the evening’s mysteries.

Knowing that this was another one of Alan Ayckbourn’s cleverly written plays, I decided to take the trip over to the Live Oak Theater at 1301 Shattuck Avenue (at Berryman) in Berkeley. This production is performed by the Actors Ensemble Theater of Berkeley, under the direction of Suzan Lorraine.

Each of these actors did a very believable job of acting and were well cast for their parts. My main criticism is that some important lines were muffled or difficult to hear without appropriate projection, particularly those of Mr. Reese, but otherwise he did a fine acting job, as did everyone else. My only other criticism was that of the balcony scene where Julian arrives to kill Ruella, which should have been harrowing, but turned out to be simply comedic, with nothing more exciting than a lot of flailing female limbs and undulating derrieres, that went on much too long! I am sure that with a couple of minor changes and a little more direction this excellent play will be totally back on track. It is a play that is really quite unique, well worth the trip to Berkeley. This theater is a very comfortable little theater that has been around for over 50 years. There is ample street parking (as long as you don’t come late). This play continues Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm. Tickets range in price between $12 for Seniors and Students and $15 for general admission. Better yet, there is a Sunday matinee on August 14th at 2 p.m., with the show closing on August 20th. Call (510) 649-5999 for reservations or you may visit their website at for more information.