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Alan Ayckbourn's "Intimate Exchanges"

Play review: Chris Rohmann views Alan Ayckbourn's "Intimate Exchanges

Alan Ayckbourn, England's master theatrical wit, is fond of setting himself dramaturgical puzzles to solve. In his trilogy "The Norman Conquests," simultaneous events are seen from three different angles, each play taking place in a different room of the same house. "Taking Steps" is set in a three-story building but acted on a flat stage.

"Intimate Exchanges" is the most complicated and daring of all Ayckbourn's comic jigsaws. Starting with a simple binary action -- the decision to smoke or not to smoke a cigarette -- he spins out multiple variations on his recurring theme, marital discontent. The result is organized as eight separate plays with 16 different endings, two of which are currently playing in rotation at Hartford Stage through February 1.

The gimmick is intriguing, though it isn't, as the publicity states, an examination of how "trivial choices" can lead to wildly diverse outcomes. Most of the changes rung in the two Hartford versions, at least, are driven not by the characters' choices but simply by the playwright's fertile invention of possibilities.

Both Hartford Stage variants -- "Confessions in a Garden Shed" and "A Cricket Match" -- are in the no-smoking column, so both start with the same scene (with minor variations) then branch off in quite different directions. To add to the tour-de-force complexities, two actors play all the parts, three each in "Confessions" and four each in "Cricket." (The overall title, "Intimate Exchanges," can be taken several ways: All the dialogue is one-on-one, most of the subject matter is love and lust, and whenever both actors aren't on stage one of them is offstage doing a quick change of clothes.)

The central figures in this running battle of the sexes are two middle-class, thirtysomething couples in a cozy London suburb, languishing in marriages that have run out of gas. Toby Teasdale is the slightly stuffy, lately tipsy, headmaster of an upscale prep school; his wife, Celia, also slightly stuffy, is lately fed up. Toby's best friend, Miles Coombes, is a tweedy bumbler matched to a flamboyant wife given to practical jokes and indiscreet affairs.

In the first scene of both plays, Toby is on the verge of dismissal. Miles is preparing to defend him before the school's board of governors and Celia is preparing to leave him. Miles and Celia have long shared a mutual but undeclared attraction; in "Cricket" that attraction is allowed to heat up, in "Confessions" it is sidetracked by Miles' sudden footloose fancy for Celia's young housecleaner, Sylvie. In "A Cricket Match" marital infidelity results in a punch-up at the titular game, in "Confessions in a Garden Shed" it leads to Miles' self- incarceration in the titular shed.

All the plays in the cycle have the same four-scene structure. The introductory scene is followed by the first variation on the theme, five days later; events come to a head in Scene 3, five weeks later, and the eventual outcome is recalled in a brief (and in both cases here, melancholy) coda five years afterward.

Scene 3 is the comic linchpin, and in "Confessions" it works wonderfully, involving all six characters in a dizzying, hilarious sequence of mistakes and misconceptions that ends with a smoke-filled stage and an empty, half-burned pair of trousers. The cricket match scene in the other version, by contrast, is rather aimless, distracted by too much attention to offstage action and never really going anywhere.

But Ayckbourn's comic wit is not stinted in either version. He is a playwright seemingly incapable of not turning an offhand remark into a laugh line. (Example, from an exchange in "Cricket," Miles halfheartedly defending his shallow wife from Celia's scorn: "Rowena can be quite a good cook when she puts her mind to it." "She must prepare awfully small portions.") What's more, part of the fun is in seeing the two divergent plots unfold, and discounts are available for double viewings.

And both productions -- well, both versions of the same production, really -- are nearly flawless: superbly paced and nicely balanced by director Greg Leaming, who never strains for a laugh but hardly ever lets one get away, and brilliantly performed by Jack Gilpin and Jennifer Van Dyck, both of them Americans with a near-perfect mastery of British speech, manners and timing.

My favorite of Gilpin's characterizations -- and both performers have created full, distinct characterizations, not just quickie caricatures -- is Miles: bespectacled, serious, skittish, prone to tripping over his tongue as unexpected emotions knock against his British reserve. Gilpin is equally effective, and credible, as pompous, impatient Toby and as Lionel Hepplewick, a self- regarding oaf who serves as groundskeeper and handyman in all the plays.

While Gilpin's distinctive long face makes all his characters look similar, Van Dyck manages more deceptive disguises, even though all her wigs are redheads (overheard at intermission: "You mean all those women are the same person?"). She's brittle, discontented Celia; sunny, spunky Sylvie; Celia's no-nonsense mother (in "Cricket" only); and wilful, playful, infuriating Rowena, whose energy and appetites are just too big for a stuffy small town. I found the least colorful of Van Dyck's roles, Celia, the most thoroughly convincing and appealing, and her Rowena a bit too broad.

Michael Yeargan's set is as ingenious and versatile as the script, with an all-purpose grass-and-flagstone foreground set before a rotating backdrop from which project low-relief exterior sections of the buildings that define each scene: the cricket pavilion, the old-stone Norman church where both final summing-up scenes take place, the Teasdales' stucco cottage and their garden shed, which cleverly opens up to reveal its interior for the "confessions" scene.

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