The mind reels at the ingenuity of “Intimate Exchanges,” a cycle of eight full-length plays by Alan Ayckbourn running in tandem in the Brits Off Broadway fest. In this masterpiece of plot manipulation, the individual but interrelated plays methodically examine the multiple opportunities for hilarity and disaster resulting from one character’s decision whether or not to smoke a cigarette. But while the technical legerdemain is astonishing, so, too, is Ayckbourn’s ability to balance the comedy and pathos of people who balk at the confinement of their lives by making a mad lunge at happiness — only to find themselves trapped in eight different kinds of hell.
Ingenious as it is, the design becomes downright treacherous in performance, since all 10 characters are played by only two actors. Happily, those thespic beasts of burden are Bill Champion and Claudia Elmhirst, gifted actors with the protean comic skills to take on the whole kit and caboodle.
Despite the complexity of the overall scheme — hatched in 1982 for the scribe’s home-based Stephen Joseph Theater in Scarborough and seen soon after in London’s West End, as well as in twin 1993 film adaptations by Alain Resnais — the tricky structure boils down to simple mathematics. All eight plays are set in the same stuffy English suburb, open with the same scene, and draw from the same set of characters.
But once the crucial to-smoke-or-not-to-smoke choice is made in that initial scene, the action veers off in one of two directions, each with its own preordained chain of events that, depending on choices made by the characters, branch off into ever-multiplying paths of action in subsequent scenes.
Scribe stopped after 16 possible codas, but according to the laws of mathematics, he could have gone on ad infinitum.
Consider that early morning smoke, which takes place (or not) in the garden of the house where Toby Teasdale (Champion), malcontent headmaster of the local school, and Celia (Elmhirst), his super-efficient but unappreciated wife, live with their (unseen) children. As is his unattractive habit, cranky Toby wakes up hung-over and surly, and the exasperated Celia retaliates with a major housecleaning that takes her out to the garden shed in search of a ladder.
As she passes by a lawn table, Celia spies a pack of cigarettes. If she stops to light up (as she does in four of the eight plays), she will hear the front doorbell ring and let in Lionel (Champion, again), the groundskeeper at Toby’s school, looking for extra work as a gardener. But if Celia skips the cigarette (as she does in the other four plays) and goes into the garden shed, she will miss Lionel and greet another visitor when she emerges from the shed. That would be Miles (Champion, yet again), the sad sack who lives next door with Rowena (Elmhirst, again), his sparkplug of a wife.
Now, since Celia is already at the end of her rope in this marriage, what with Toby’s drinking at home, his incompetence at school and hurtful behavior toward her, the poor dear is bound to do something drastic. But depending on which play you are attending, she could have a fling with the gardener (“Events on a Hotel Terrace”), go into the catering business (“Affairs in a Tent”), find her true love with Miles (“A Cricket Match”) or pass up her last chance for love (“A One Man Protest”). Yet more scenarios are explored in the other four plays: “Love in the Mist,” “A Game of Golf,” “A Pageant” and “A Garden Fete.”
Given her volatile state, Celia could also rebel, get rip-roaring drunk, tell off Toby, break Lionel’s heart, make a man of Miles, find herself, lose herself, disgrace herself or have a nervous breakdown. (Be assured that, whatever she is charged to do, Elmhirst is alternately endearing, pathetic and/or hilarious.)
Ayckbourn has all those bases covered — and then some. Although Celia’s initial action of smoking or not smoking sets off every chain of events, some of the most memorable scenes involve other characters. As played by Champion, Toby has some vitriolic moments that are breathtaking for their biting wit and overflowing bile, while Miles, the nerd from next door, is heartbreaking when his love is denied. For that matter, anyone who catches “A Cricket Match” might think that Elmhirst has her finest moment as earthy red-headed Rowena.
No matter which hoops the individual characters jump though, or how many permutations the plot takes, all the storylines emerge from the same mainspring: the sad state of domestic relationships in this neck of the world — and everyone’s desperate need to have some fun before it’s too late.
Ayckbourn is intimately familiar with his striver-class characters and their socially proper (or improper) interactions with the lower orders once they wake up in middle age to discover the limitations of their lives. If the character psychology seems sound underneath the broad farcical comedy, it’s because the scribe has been studying it over the course of some 70 plays.
The only real critical caveat here is that Ayckbourn seems disinclined to go as deeply into the psyches of Lionel the gardener and Sylvie the cleaning girl as he has with the professional-class twits they work for — and occasionally seduce. While Elmhirst charmingly conveys Sylvie’s aspirations to better herself and Champion has a go at Lionel’s broken-hearted response to a loved one’s rejection, both characters are played largely for laughs.
Maybe if they shucked the absurdly phony blonde wigs, Ayckbourn could get off a few more plays in this cycle.