Reviewed by David Spencer
There is a temptation, in writing about British playwright Alan Ayckbourn, especially about one of his play cycles, such as 1982's Intimate Exchanges (currently at 59E59 as part of this summer's Brits off-Broadway festival) to chirp, Mrs. Lovett-like, "What a clever child it is!" Mr. Ayckbourn loves his puzzles and theatre games, but Intimate Exchanges may well top the ambition charts. It's not so much the achievement as the expectation that the audience will care to sample more than one or two of the eight plays. As it happens, I did all eight, but bear in mind I'm crazy when it comes to things like this. Ayckbourn may well be crazy too, but perhaps it is a divine madness. Enough preamble, let me explain.
Intimate Exhanges was written when Ayckbourn's theatre company lost all but two of its actors to other employment, and he was still considering how to fill out his coming season. Since he'd always wanted to write a two-hander, he decided to write a number of connected ones that could run in repertory, in which two actors, one male, one female, would play all the characters, exiting as one, entering as another, quick costume changes and voice alteration in full swing. A full complement of characters, but never more than two onstage at once, hence the title.
The thematic premise Ayckbourn began with, to fuel the proceedings, is this: Small choices can have large consequences (i.e. Think of an important person in your life you might never have met if you hadn't done something simple like duck under an awning in the rain).
He makes the premise manifest thusly. A woman exits her house to her backyard patio, She sees a box of cigarettes on the table. If she decides to smoke one, a matter of five seconds will put her in a position to answer a knock at her front door. If she decides not to, those five seconds saved will have her instead receiving quite a different visitor tentatively hovering at her backyard entrance.
What happens with the cigarette determines which of two opening scenes will be played out. Near the end of either scene, yet another crucial choice is made by an onstage character. The choice made in turn determines which of two second scenes, taking place five days later will follow. (If you're doing the math, you're following the exponential increase: two possible Scene Ones, four possible Scene Twos.) The resolution of each second scene in turn pivots upon a choice being made—leading to eight possible Scene Threes (following intermission, set five weeks later). And yes, you guessed it, every Scene Three ends with a choice made and that leads to sixteen possible endings, five years later, two for each of the eight plays in the cycle.
There is no need to visit all eight plays. Each is self-sufficient, two will give you a sense, three or four is plenty comprehensive enough, and I guarantee you'll hit the wall at about six. (Speaking of walls. Go here to see a chart of how it all breaks down—http://www.59e59.org/frameset.htm—and if you see more than one, choose those that vary the most from each other lest you see too much of the same repeated material.)
What is remarkable about the plays is how funny they are, how humanly the characters are drawn (passing characters aside, there are three male and three female principals, not all of whom appear in every play) and often how sad they are too. There was a time when Ayckbourn used to be called "The English Neil Simon," because he was at least as prolific, as popular in his native land, and dealt with contemporary urban (well, suburban) characters—but if anything I think he's more akin to Chekhov. He's fascinated by broken people and he's often content not to fix them. But he does, here, seem to be illustrating the folly of dwelling on woulda-coulda-shoulda, the thesis being that no choice ever works out cleanly as expected, there's bad comes with the good, and the best one can hope for, ultimately, is proportion and balance.
The perfectly brilliant actors with all 750 pages of this thing in their heads are Claudia Elmhirst and the appropriately named Bill Champion. The direction is by the author and Tim Luscombe.
And I feel like I'm ready to pass a test...