It’s good fun and, for a while at least, it’s interesting to watch the actors fulfill the play’s impish demands.
Intimate Exchanges, written by Alan Ayckbourn. Directed by Olivia D’Ambrosio. Scenic design by Anne Sherer. Lighting design by John R. Malinowski. Costume design by Chelsea Kerl. Sound design and composition by Nathan Leigh. Staged by The Nora Theatre Company at the Central Square Theater, Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA, through February 12.
By David Greenham
For over 40 years Britain’s most prolific dramatist, Alan Ayckbourn, has been playing around with theatrical form and function. His 1982 comedy Intimate Exchanges is one of his most ambitious works: it demands that two actors transform, quickly, into different characters and it not so much a play as eight plays. Each script has two possible endings, so there are 16 possible conclusions. In its production, the Nora Theatre Company is offering two of the tracks.
The premise, in this version (or these versions!) of the play focuses on the woman’s role. When you look to book a ticket you’ll see that you can choose the “Celia track” or the “Sylvie track.” Last Sunday afternoon the Celia track was on view. (It was an intimate theater crowd of about 40; it turns out that that day the “Patriots track” was taking place elsewhere.)
The Nora’s artistic staff, including two plucky dramaturges, have written quite a lot about the play’s dramaturgical gimmick. In terms of the tracks, audience members vote at intermission to determine how the play will end. It’s good fun and, for a while at least, it’s interesting to watch the actors fulfill the play’s impish demands.
Talented young actors Sarah Elizabeth Bedard (Celia and Sylvie), and Jade Ziane (Lionel, Toby, and Miles) certainly have their hands full. The story mostly centers around the Teasdales, an unhappily married couple. Toby is the headmaster of Bilbury Lodge Preparatory School, located somewhere in the English countryside. As the play begins, we meet Celia, his overly fretful wife, as she wanders into the backyard of their school-owned house and decides to have a smoke. She’s conservatively dressed and sports a modish brunette bob. There are some empty liquor bottles lying about; she considers them with obvious disdain. Her disapproval of her husband’s drinking is evident.
Her attention turns quickly to young Lionel Hepplewick, the school’s groundskeeper, who is planning to redesign the garden. The two of them flirt and the intimate exchanges begin. A contrived need for an exit is created. Bedard hurries off and returns a fumbling few minutes later as Sylive Bell, the Teasdale’s young, blonde, and bubbly housekeeper. She already has a thing for Lionel, and he had a thing for her, until he started up with Celia. Eventually, Lionel makes his escape and Headmaster Toby Tisdale emerges with a suit jacket and moustache; in this play, only the women are required to completely change their look and style. Save for a moustache, glasses, or a suit coat, the male characters all look pretty much the same. And so it goes….
One of the most challenging aspects of staging an Ayckbourn play is to make sure that the story, character, and spirited dialogue is not overwhelmed by the contrivance. In the case of NTC’s Celia version, the gimmick comes awfully close to swallowing up the fun.
Still, there’s plenty of amusement to be had. When Celia innocently tells Toby the gardener “if you see anything you like, help yourself,” she probably doesn’t realize what he’s thinking — but we do. And when Toby announces that has been a “master baker,” we mishear it in the same way Celia does. The sexual undercurrent in the play, as performed here, is a bit faint, and that undercuts the humor. Too often it seems that actors Bedard and Ziane are chasing their own tails rather than each other’s.
By the time we’ve seen that the conflict of Celia’s flirtation is going just a little too far, and Lionel’s obsession is going a lot too far, we should be comfortably anticipating each character switch and relishing the accelerating comic frenzy. This production doesn’t reach the comic nirvana of going “over the top’ as often as it could. But it might. The pieces seem to be in place for that kind of enjoyable mayhem.
Bedard and Ziane work very well together, generating some chemistry in the first act that should have been fun to watch fall apart in the second. The problem is their depictions of the troubled relationship between the Teasdale’s. Bedard is not convincing when it comes to displaying Celia’s loyalty to hubby, and Ziane is not convincing as a headmaster type or a husband. In fact, this Teasdale doesn’t seem interested in much of anything. There are only passing references to his interest in drinking, which is, according to the character listing in the lobby, one of the figure’s key traits. Ayckbourn is known for his gimmicks, of course, and so it’s not impossible to think that he’d create a character who had no interest in being in the play at all. Maybe that’s it, but it’s doubtful. The bottom line is that it’s difficult to care all that much for the two of them together. Maybe Sylvie’s track gives us a stronger version of Headmaster Teasdale.
The direction by Olivia D’Ambrosio is quick and tight. She uses the interesting space arrangement – audience members sit on opposite sides – very well. Anne Sherer’s white framed set is lovely and it provides the flexibility necessary to pull off the tricky task of a storyline that can take four possible paths. The set is well lit, especially at the colorful edges, by John R. Malinowksi. The sound and costumes by Nathan Leigh and Chelsea Kerl, respectively, are less successful, especially the off-stage voices, which play a key role in sustaining the gimmick of actors who are constantly turning into other characters. The voices sound as if they were recorded in a glass bottle.
It must be a bit disheartening for a company to be staging clever fluff like Intimate Exchanges at a time of political alarm. In her program notes, NTC Artistic Director Lee Mikeska Gardner writes that “choosing to run Intimate Exchanges in the middle of winter was meant to be a fun way to get you out of your house.” Little did she suspect that as many as two million people had more than enough reason (such as the future of the world) to leave their homes. This has been a winter that has been anything but quiet. Maybe Ayckbourn’s 1985 play Chorus of Disapproval would have been more timely.
David Greenham is an adjunct professor of Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta, and is the Program Director for the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine. He spent 14 years leading the Theater at Monmouth, and has been a theater artist and arts administrator in Maine for more than 25 years.