A model train whirs regularly into view in the 1st Stage production of “Hero’s Welcome.” The plaything of one of the characters in Alan Ayckbourn’s 2015 dark comedy, the tiny locomotive is seemingly in fine working order, zipping around a portion of the stage floor.
Would that such grace and nimbleness characterized the rest of this creaky production. “Hero’s Welcome” is a baggy and contrivance-fueled piece of writing to begin with: The generally stagy acting in director Alex Levy’s rendering makes the proceedings a real slog.
Attenuating the stiltedness a little are first-rate performances by Lisa Hodsoll and Anne Bowles, who play two residents in a town that is thrown into ferment when a native son returns. Seventeen years after leaving under a cloud, Murray (Nick DePinto) arrives back in his hometown, having achieved military honors in a war and snagged a young foreign-born wife, Baba (Angeleaza Anderson). As Murray pursues a cherished plan — reviving a decaying local hotel, the Bird of Prey — his rivalry with his onetime best friend Brad (Clayton Pelham Jr.) flares up again, with dire results.
Hodsoll is wholly convincing as the town’s hard-boiled mayor, Alice, and Bowles does fine comic turns — with deft somber undercurrents — as Brad’s abused wife, Kara, and bad-tempered daughter Simmy. (The costumes designed by Danielle Preston support the characterizations and include a gorgeous red fascinator.) The withering expressions and brutish bonhomie of Pelham’s Brad can also be diverting. But mostly the cast looks — and, given the attempt at British accents, intermittently sounds — ill at ease with the world of the story.
According to the playbill, “Hero’s Welcome” is Ayckbourn’s 79th play. Watching this production, which is billed as the play’s regional premiere, you might assume that he manages to be prolific by stinting on polish-and-rewrite mode. Much of the dialogue here could stand tightening, and the humor that is milked from Baba’s novice-English-speaker diction, especially in the show’s first half, is tedious. What is more, with the exception of Alice’s mild-mannered, model-railroad-obsessed husband, Derek (James J. Johnson), the characters are not so much full personalities as they are situations with a few attached traits.
There are admittedly a couple of poignant moments toward the play’s end, reflecting on the burden of the past and the ugly truths of war. Also on a positive note, set designer Kathryn Kawecki has put together an interesting-looking set, with crammed-together rooms that represent three households, in front of a wall plastered with municipal-planning documents.
But it’s still the model train that comes off best.
Hero’s Welcome, by Alan Ayckbourn. Directed by Alex Levy; lighting design, Robbie Hayes; sound design, Reid May; props design, Cindy Landrum Jacobs. About 2½ hours. Tickets: $15-$39. Through Oct. 7 at 1st Stage, 1524 Spring Hill Rd., Tysons Corner. 703-854-1856 or 1stStageTysons.org.