THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
STAGE REVIEW

A group of lonely souls explore their fears

Bill Salem (left) is Ambrose the bartender and Michael Steven Costello is Dan in “Private Fears in Public Places.’’ Bill Salem (left) is Ambrose the bartender and Michael Steven Costello is Dan in “Private Fears in Public Places.’’ (Richard Hall/Silverline Images)
By Sandy MacDonald
Globe Correspondent / February 18, 2010

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Sir Alan Ayckbourn’s 67th play (out of more than 70 so far) is at once minimalist and juicy. Having wowed London and New York in 2005, “Private Fears in Public Places’’ has been unveiled at last in New England, in a generally astute production by the feisty Zeitgeist Stage Company.

In 54 seamless mini-scenes, swiftly unfurling over the course of 100 minutes, Ayckbourn tracks six lonely souls at loose ends in the fast-track London of the ’90s.

Upper-class go-getter Nicola (Christine Power) is apartment-hunting with the help of real estate agent Stewart (Robert Bonotto) and showing signs of premarital strain. Her fiance, Dan (Michael Steven Costello), seems insufficiently motivated - except in insisting that he have a private study. Dan’s a no-show at the go-see. We find him instead at a fancy hotel bar, where he serially regales the professionally patient bartender, Ambrose (Bill Salem), with his views on women, whinges about the abrupt end to his army career (hints of Abu Ghraib), and gets falling-down drunk.

Meanwhile, Stewart has returned to his office, where he flirts innocently enough with his sunny, shy-seeming assistant, Charlotte (Becca A. Lewis), who bestows an inspirational video on him before heading off to her night job as ministering angel to Ambrose’s verbally abusive, bedridden father (offstage voiceover by Rick Parks). The tape turns out to have a surprise coda, of an X-rated nature - as Stewart’s sister Imogen (Shelley Brown) discovers to her disgust upon returning from yet another fizzled dating-service assignation, camouflaged as a night out with the girls.

There, that’s everyone, trailing their little secrets - but there are many more surprise turns in store. Ayckbourn’s script is a model of carefully planted clues. In fact, mild-mannered Ambrose is slated for what will be perhaps the biggest “reveal.’’ In Salem’s handling, it’s certainly the most touching, even if others prove more sensational.

Lewis is brilliant as the deeply conflicted Charlotte, whose Christian devotion is matched only by certain more primal, exhibitionistic urges. Is she afflicted with a dissociative disorder or merely perverse? We may never know, but even when Charlotte is presenting herself as a paragon of wholesomeness, Lewis’s eyes betray a glint of suppressed mischief.

Dialect coach Bryn Jameson has done a good job keeping the accents in line. And my only cavil regarding David J. Miller’s direction - beyond the staging, which makes for some frustrating sight lines - is that his casting choices skew old.

These roles, with the exception of Ambrose, are meant for actors in their 30s; add a decade or two, and it throws the game off, or at least suggests some very different scenarios. The brother-sister pair wouldn’t be quite so sad and sordid, for example, if they weren’t mired in middle age. Costello, though not quite the superficially golden boy that Ayckbourn seems to have had in mind, is such a skilled actor - he’s a genius at playing soused - that the age displacement proves less problematic.

And Miller redeems himself as director with one final creative touch. In adding a lagniappe with a closing scene that’s not in the script, he suggests that this roundelay of thwarted relationships may just be warming up.

PRIVATE FEARS IN PUBLIC PLACES Play by Alan Ayckbourn

Direction and set by: David J. Miller. Lights, Chris Fournier. Costumes, Fabian Aguilar. Produced by Zeitgeist Stage Company.

At: Plaza Black Box Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts, through March 6. Tickets: $30. 617-933-8600, www.zeitgeiststage.com