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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
INTIMATE EXCHANGES
at 59E59 Theaters, NY

WHAT IF...?
By Bill Stevenson

  Claudia Elmhirst/ Ph:Tony Bartholomew

It's hard enough for most people to write one play. With Intimate Exchanges,Sir Alan Ayckbourn has come up with eight plays that all start the same way but then veer off in different directions. Making the cycle even more challenging to produce, two actors juggle all the roles. Somehow Ayckbourn and his two actors pull it off brilliantly. The Brits Off Broadway festival is lucky to have landed this delicious import from the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, England. Anglophiles-not to mention anyone who appreciates bravura acting-will eat it up.

Wearing all the hats (and wigs) are the marvelous Bill Champion and Claudia Elmhirst, who must be the hardest-working actors on any New York stage at the moment. They're also among the best, bringing to life Ayckbourn's funny, melancholic, compelling, memorable characters. There's Toby, the hard-drinking headmaster of a small private school outside London. Dry-witted and sardonic, he exasperates his wife Celia, who copes by throwing herself into charitable work (and whose dilemma about whether to smoke a cigarette triggers the divergent plots). School-board chair Miles has to save his friend Toby's job and decide if he wants to save his marriage to raven-haired Rowena, who has slept with most of the men at the local squash club. Meanwhile, Toby and Celia's part-time maid Sylvie must decide if she wants to settle for cocky caretaker Lionel, son of windbag, stanza-spouting poet Joe.

While all the characters figure in the story, they don't all appear in each play. A One Man Protest centers on nervous, unhappy Miles, but he doesn't even show up in A Garden Fete, which focuses on Sylvie's attempts at self-improvement. Every character feels trapped-in unsatisfying marriages, jobs, and small-town life-and each attempts to break free at some point. But one would have to see all eight plays to see them do it. Ayckbourn clearly has a great deal of affection for his ruefully self-aware characters. Audiences will too, and many will want to return a few times before the run ends on July 1st.

Having written more than 70 plays (including the superb Private Fears in Public Places, a 2005 hit at Brits Off Broadway), Ayckbourn gets a lot of attention for his experiments with structure. In House and Garden, for instance, actors run back and forth between two adjacent theaters. Intimate Exchanges, written in 1982 but never seen in its entirety in the U.S., is probably the most ambitious work of his long career. But the clever structure is merely a jumping-off point for Ayckbourn. It's his wry humor, endearingly flawed characters, and tight plotting that I admire most. He's also a damn good director, as he showed with Private Fears in Public Places. This time he shares directing duties with Tim Luscombe, and they've elicited remarkable performances from Elmhirst and Champion.

The production's only disappointing element is the rather drab, low-budget set. Long scene changes slow down the action in A One Man Protest, and Toby and Celia's garden isn't exactly verdant. The only sign of a tree is a sad, lonely branch hanging from the lights. On the other hand, that branch is no sadder or lonelier than the characters who make Intimate Exchanges such a delectable early-summer treat.

 


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