NEW YORK—Few things can do more harm than malicious rumors, insinuations, and outright lies, as Alan Ayckbourn’s “Hero’s Welcome” makes clear. The show is making its New York debut at the Brits Off Broadway festival at 59E59 Theaters.
Murray (Richard Stacey) a 38-year-old soldier and former resident of the town of Hadforth, England, has returned home a hero. He’s been honored for his actions in combat, which included saving his unit from sniper fire and rescuing 34 children trapped inside a burning hospital.
With his 22-year-old wife, Baba (Evelyn Hoskins), in tow—she speaking almost no English—Murray plans to settle down in the town he fled two decades earlier.
However, certain residents who remember the circumstances under which Murray left are not ready to welcome him back.
Among them is Brad (Stephen Billington), his former best friend who was in love with Alice (Elizabeth Boag) until Murray stole her away, only to leave her pregnant and waiting for him at the altar. Also, a suspicious fire erupted at that same time.
Murray’s plans to renovate the now-derelict hotel his parents used to run puts him at odds with the town counsel and Alice, who is now the town’s mayor. The building has been slated for demolition.
Murray’s presence also affects Brad’s and Alice’s respective spouses Kara (Charlotte Harwood) and Derek (Russell Dixon), both of whom find the status quo in their supposedly happy lives now in turmoil.
Derek, obsessed with model trains, finds his wife more distant than usual, while Kara finds her husband treating her as little more than a doormat.
Although Kara’s situation may have been going on for some time, Murray’s return threatens to bring things to a boil. It’s made clear that Brad has to win at everything, even if it means involving Baba in a scheme of payback.
What becomes clear in “Hero’s Welcome”—the irony of its title soon painfully obvious—is how easily people are willing to believe the worst about others. This propensity for gossip, rumors, and half truths feeds an almost frenzied need among the locals for an outsider to be responsible for their own problems, rather than realizing the fault is closer to home.
The play also shows how lies and innuendos from one group or generation can have their effect on the next. Kara and Brad’s daughter Simone (Harwood) reacts toward Baba over what she is certain has occurred. The actions of the children Murray rescued are just as telling.
Even Murray, who knows full well the damage untruths can have, finds himself beset by self-doubts as the future he is trying to build starting to unravel.
Standing out in this story as a rock of integrity is Baba. Hoskins does an excellent job not only in making her appealing, but also in working with Ayckbourn (who also directs the story) to allow the character to blossom. Baba starts out as an innocent, coming to a strange land from a different cultural setting, wanting to be no more than Murray’s loyal wife and liked by those she thinks are his friends.
She quickly strikes up a kinship with Kara, who in her own way is just as alone as Baba. She also earns a grudging respect from Alice. Even as Baba gains understanding of the English language and customs, she maintains her core principles about always seeing the best in people—at least until they directly prove otherwise.
Stacey is effective as Murray, someone who just wants to start life over.
Billington is quietly malicious as the scheming Brad, a man who often reduces Kara to the verge of tears with a hurtful remark.
Harwood deserves special mention for her portrayal of Kara, a character in an emotionally abusive relationship with basically nothing to call her own.
Boag is good as Alice, a woman still trying to come to terms with her own role in past events, while Dixon offers both a quiet comic touch and a frequent shoulder to lean on as Derek.
If there is a problem with the text, it’s that it does not provide enough of a back story where Kara and Derek are concerned. Deeper insights into their characters would have certainly helped.
Derek and Alice’s relationship to each other could have also been better defined.
The ending is somewhat ambiguous. It shows events coming full circle while leaving the characters with several questions about what to believe. Then again, that’s been Ayckbourn’s point throughout; and in “Hero’s Welcome” he makes it very well.
59 E. 59th St.
Tickets: 212-279-4200 or 59e59.org
Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (one intermission)
Closes: July 3
Judd Hollander is a member of the Drama Desk and reviewer for Stagebuzz.com