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June 21, 2007

Intimate Exchanges, Alan Aykbourn’s eight-play suite at 59E59 Theaters is bloody brilliant

Theater: 59E59 Theaters
Show Title: Intimate Exchanges (eight full-length plays) by Alan Ayckbourn
Opened: June 14, 2007 Scheduled to close: July 1.
Seen: June 16, Love in the Mist and June 17, A Pageant
Reviewer: Peter Kelston
Submitted: June 20, 2007

It’s not just an entertaining play. It’s also a puzzle. We enjoy it. And as we do, we also wonder. Where does the other play diverge from the one we’re watching? It’s not about how they fit together so much as it’s about how they separate. And how will they make it all work on such a simple-looking set with only two actors?

If you enjoy theater that works on multiple levels simultaneously, seeing one or more of the eight Ayckbourn plays (with sixteen possible endings) now running in repertory as part of 59E59 Theater’s Brits Off-Broadway Festival will be a delight for the mind as well as the funnybone and the heartstrings.

Sir Alan Ayckbourn is the author of over 65 plays, many of which have been produced in NY, both on Broadway and Off. He is well know for keen dialog, fully drawn characters, interesting plot developments and especially for several multi-play constructions involving interlocking and/or interwoven plot lines, settings and characters. This collection was originally produced in 1982-1984 at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, England, where he serves as Artistic Director.

The entertainment and the challenge begin in the lobby before we enter the theater. A poster displays a schematic diagram of the plot lines of all eight plays and their sixteen possible endings. The performance we’re about to see is highlighted. For the detail-minded among us, the diagram displays the path we’ll be taking at this performance. Each play starts with the identical opening scene. Within a few moments, one of two plot-lines is determined. These two first scenes soon lead to four possible second scenes. After intermission, each of the four first acts leads to a choice of two second acts, for a total of eight plays.

Decoding this diagram is not essential. The program for each play provides the usual information about the production plus brief biographical sketches of all six primary characters, even though not every character appears in every play.

For the serious, a souvenir program from this Scarborough production is available for $5. In addition to the characters’ backstories, the program includes a 1982 essay by the playwright about the overarching premise (“Have you ever reflected how those tiny decisions we make every day of our lives … lead to larger decisions…?”) and an essay entitled “Theatrical Chaos” by co-director Tim Luscombe.

All the plays start with the same opening scene, in the backyard garden of Celia and Toby Teasdale. Toby is the headmaster of the Bilbury Lodge School. Miles Coombs, a businessman, is an old friend and as a Director of the school, is very concerned about Toby’s drinking and deteriorating job performance. Miles’ wife Rowena has a most unusual approach and philosophy about making a long-term marriage work. Lionel is the ambitious, second-generation groundskeeper at the school. Sylvie, his finance, helps Celia in the house. They have not yet set a wedding date.

The diagram tells us where we’ll be going, including which of two possible ending we’ll be seeing at this performance. No randomness is involved. But while the play we’ll see is predetermined, Ayckbourn’s message seems to be quite the opposite. Each play simply represents a possible course that the randomness of our everyday decisions determine for us.

The six characters are all played by two marvelously talented actors. Claudia Elmhirst and Bill Champion bring every character fully to life. The production looks unassuming. The set is understated. But the incredible ingenuity of the set and the script and the direction is soon evident. And it contributes enormously to the anticipation and the enjoyment.

When an actor exits, we know they will return shortly. But will it be as the same character or as a different character. The costume changes (some rather quick) and total transformations from one character to another are so convincing that it takes a moment to realize that we’re seeing the actor who just left a moment before as someone else. Often, a character on stage will converse with another character (off-stage) played by the same actor. The cleverness and timing with which this is all accomplished has an impact similar to watching a sleight-of-hand artist up-close.

Each play is intended to stand on its own. The seamlessness as the scenario follows so naturally from each prior scene is an amazing feat of dramaturgy. Where one play splits off from another is completely transparent except in the opening of Act I. To say these plays are well-crafted is a tremendous understatement. This is a master-class of theatercraft.

I’ve only been able to see two so far. Each was an interesting, well-written, social comedy involving characters we immediately cared about. Ayckbourn has given us a smorgasbord at which every dish promises to be delectable. Some dishes may turn out to be more or less satisfying than others, but I’m certainly hungry for more.

Peter Kelston
theaterluvr@optonline.net


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