Alan Ayckbourn’s high-concept plays have a way of pleasantly surprising you and letting you down at the same time.
The man is a skilled craftsman and entertaining stylist, but a writer too amused by gimmicks—and they are gimmicks, friends, not experiments in structure. His twin plays House and Garden, produced by Manhattan Theatre Club in 2002, were designed to be performed simultaneously on neighboring stages, with the same actors dashing back and forth to play their characters in each drama. It made for a thrilling theatrical experience—but because of what you knew was going on backstage, not what you saw in front of you. And that shouldn’t be the point of any play.
Intimate Exchanges, a 1982 work now in revival as part of the Brits Off Broadway festival, is another example—perhaps the ultimate example—of Ayckbourn’s watchmaking school of playwriting. The enormous work is composed of eight different plays featuring the same six central characters, all portrayed by the same two actors. Each play begins with the identical 30-second scene, in which a school headmaster’s wife, Celia Teasdale, weighs whether or not to light up a cigarette. The plays then veer off in different directions based on her choice. Further decisions result in other narrative detours, all leading to one of 16 possible denouements.
Such manufactured complications can draw a heavy sigh from a theatergoer who wants plays to be something other than wind-up toys. And so I approached Intimate Exchanges with a severe case of circumspection. But within a few minutes of the first of the two plays I took in, A One Man Protest, I began to be engaged. Because of Ayckbourn’s predilection for sideshow stunts, it’s easy to forget his considerable talents: He has an easy hand with dialogue, effortlessly fashions hilarious situations, and can furnish a well-rounded character when needed. Even if headmaster Toby Teasdale is basically a tightly wound ball of sarcastic jibes, built for laughs, his wife Celia comprises an intriguing amalgam of middle-class common sense, whimsy, and latent masochism.
But then, just as you’re being drawn into these two lives, you’re reminded that they’re only puppets, slaves to Ayckbourn’s dramaturgical machine. That’s why the actors, Claudia Elmhirst and Bill Champion, have to awkwardly talk to silent, unseen figures from time to time; why they must traffic in unnecessary busywork while waiting for their partner to return in another guise. What’s more, Ayckbourn’s overarching thesis in Intimate Exchanges—that our fates are irrevocably determined by our minor, everyday decisions—proves to be a fraud. The various life paths of these folks don’t have the feeling of inevitability; they’re not the choices of specific minds, but of a puckish playwright. (Yasmina Reza’s similarly structured play Life x 3 also proposed that an altered response or gesture could send a life careening on a unexpected path, and that play’s version of the argument was even less persuasive than Intimate Exchanges‘.) Personality, not just circumstance, must count for something; the only way the various responses of each character in Intimate Exchanges make sense is if they’re each schizophrenic.
Dramatically sound or not, however, each role is flawlessly filled by Elmhirst and Champion. Elmhirst’s Celia makes for a deeply sympathetic and painfully funny portrayal; Champion finds multiple layers of repression and anger in the Teasdales’ proper friend, Miles Coombes. They’ve also mastered the physical transformations from one part to the next. As Celia, Miles’s wife Rowena, and Celia’s maid Sylvie, Elmhirst creates three very different kinds of pretty. In large portion, these two performers keep you engaged after the allure of Ayckbourn’s set-up wears off, diverting your attention from the man behind the curtain.