Theater Review” “Intimate Exchanges” — Semi-furious Comic Froth

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.

A scene from the Nora Theatre Company production of "Intimate Exchanges." Photo: courtesy of the Nora Theatre.

Sarah Elizabeth Bedard and Jade Ziane in a scene from the Nora Theatre Company production of “Intimate Exchanges.” Photo: courtesy of the Nora Theatre.

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.


  1. Lee Mikeska Gardner on January 27, 2017 at 11:07 am

    Thank you for the thoughtful review. Even when the (subjective) opinion is not…glowing, I always appreciate a critic who is articulate and clearly loves theatre as much as I do.

    However, I must refute your last paragraph. I am not all disheartened that I chose to produce Intimate Exchanges now. In fact, because we are living in such stressful times, having a good laugh is even more important. As a young director, I use to sniff a bit at comedies, even ones I was hired to direct, because I was a “serious” artist until a friend, a neurosurgeon who operated on veterans at Walter Reed, told me how seeing one of my fluffy comedies was exactly what he needed after an impossible week. I quickly got out of my bubble and now, when my job is to program productions, I assess the value and timing of every placement and comedies play an important role.

    We cannot escape news that is dire, that is absurd, that is terrifying, that has the potential of changing – and has already changed – the fabric of a society we thought we knew. There will certainly be serious theatre that will respond to the events and times in which we are living. But no one can live that 24/7 and to release the pressure one must laugh or cry.

    In the bleak winter months, as we experience the effects of climate change and are living through the beginning of a Trump administration, I choose to laugh. Then I have the equilibrium for the work ahead.

    Lee Mikeska Gardner

    • David Greenham on January 27, 2017 at 11:47 am

      Thanks Lee – Thanks for the comments, and I wholeheartedly agree with you about the need for humor in these times of stress.

      My comment wasn’t so much about the choice of doing something comic in the quiet winter as it was about the fact that for this year, at least, the quiet winter seems not to have come.

      As a former Artistic Director myself, I know that sometimes the attention of the public is on other things than going to theater for a laugh. If you’re an audience member out there – and if you are reading this, you most certainly are – please know butts in the seats matter. The energy of the audience feeds the actors and production in such positive ways. In my ideal world everyone will go and protest for women’s rights on Saturday, and then go pack the theater on Sunday afternoon!

      Best of luck with your run and the rest of your season.

    • Bill Marx on January 29, 2017 at 1:13 pm

      Thanks for making these points. We will see if theaters respond to the current political situation with serious work that challenges audiences rather than placates them. We (theater artists and critics) have been complacent for far too long. Let’s see if the theater ‘industry’ has the courage to do provocative rather than safe productions. I am skeptical — but I dearly want to be proved wrong.

      My feeling is not that comedy is not welcome these days, but there is comedy and there is comedy. The return of the work of genial British farceur Alan Ayckbourn is a bit baffling. There is comedy that makes a point — from satires to lampoons. There are also comedies that are not about making people feel comfortable — but making them uncomfortable about what they are willing to accept in order to be …. comfortable. The irony is that Ayckbourn’s later work went in a much darker direction — but what is being revived (by you and by the Huntington Theatre Company) is his early fluff, the sugar that people flocked to lick up in the Thatcher era. The truth is that we are smothering in fluff in our culture — that is our main diet, and just what our corporations want us to consume: the arts as a form of escape. (There is lots of money to made from responses to Trump.) Let’s see if the comedies that stage companies chose have some critical points to make about the world we live in, and that draw on the talents of our contemporary playwrights.

  2. J. Allen Fitz-Gerald on February 2, 2017 at 1:18 pm

    Instead of comic fluff OR serious drama, why not give us seriocomic plays? Having a good laugh is not antithetical to an experience that is meaningful. Now that my own seriocomic play Prisoners of Hope had its public readings and is revised as an offering at once powerful and entertaining, is production-ready and posted on the NNPN’s New Play Exchange, it will be interesting to see how theaters respond to the challenge of doing such a play—one that dares to take a comedic approach to the doom-and-gloom subject of climate change. Enthusiastic folks are doing it as a staged reading on a college campus in April, which will give us an early indication of the potential for new plays that are both truthful and fun.

    • Bill Marx on February 2, 2017 at 2:26 pm

      The point I was making in my earlier response — humor can be used on stage to make a point: there’s black comedies, satires, etc. But our theaters are reaching for fluff — on the notion that it serves as an escape for what is happening around us. It is that argument that I won’t accept.

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