Theatre Mirror Reviews: Farther Afield - "Intimate Exchanges"

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Farther Afield

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note: entire contents copyright 1997 by E. Kyle Minor

Old ideas in Hartford Stage's
"Intimate Exchanges"

by E. Kyle Minor

Just when you thought British playwright Alan Ayckbourn pushed cleverness to the limit, you see yet another of his 50-plus plays and know there are no boundaries to his creative mind. However, clever doesn't always mean entertaining, as seen in Hartford Stage Company's "Intimate Exchanges," which runs through February 1.

"Intimate Exchanges" once again finds Ayckbourn exploring marital bankruptcy and quiet, endless loneliness in human relationships. This, in fact, is one of the constants of all his plays. Usually the playwright presents new insight, however subtle, in witty, bitter-sweet style. "Intimate Exchanges,' however, plays rather thin and overly familiar. If it weren't for the theatrical trick of having two actors (Jack Gilpin and Jennifer Van Dyck) play all six roles concerned, there would be little to hold an audience in the play.

Ayckbourn has devised the closest dramatic equivalent to the internet you will find anywhere. "Exchanges" consists of two sets of eight plays with links to sixteen possible endings. The choice precipitating the cast's course of action is whether the character Celia smokes or not at the top of the play. Smoking, Celia clicks on to one set of 16 possible plays, the other set if she passes.

All plays use the same settings, so depending on a theatre's budget and whim, they can play as many of the 32 as they wish. Hartford Stage presents two versions, "A Cricket Match" and "Confessions in a Garden Shed" in repertory. Two summers ago, Westport Country Playhouse presented "Confessions" with Elaine May and Gene Saks, a production ill-served by the actors' rusty memories. This review concerns "A Cricket Match" only.

The action oozes from Celia's garden, to the corner of a cricket field five weeks later, to a churchyard five years hence. Miles Coombes arrives for dinner at Celia's, only to find that Toby, Celia's unreliable husband and his best friend, is off tipping in a pub. Just as well, since Rowena, Miles' wife, sends word that she's not up to attending herself. Thus the two, beleaguered spouses drink and commiserate together, baring a bit of their hearts in the process. If you've seen at least two previous Ayckbourn plays, you can see where this is headed.

Even though this play is titled "A Cricket Match," the couple winds up in the garden shed doings thing which they must eventually confess to. And they aren't necessarily cricket. Before, during and after, Celia's mother, and husband intrude on the couple. While these interruptions create fun in that they are played by the Gilpin and Van Dyck, they supply only minor amusement.

Later, in at the cricket field and at the churchyard, Celia and Miles continue to guilt over their affair, endure their marriages and try to maintain their own relationship. In the final scene, with five more years worth of life experiences behind them, they are resigned to their lives and somewhat at piece with their own choices, which took them away from each other.

Celia and Miles' relationship is sprinkled with wit, pain, ennui and, occasionally, relative joy. On the whole, it is a doleful existence. Not one the audience wishes to stick with for more than two hours. Where Ayckbourn used to counterpoint his irony with wit and even farce, this particular slice of life shows little to care about. Though Gilpin and Van Dyck avoid whining, their self-pity crowds out room for the audience's. Perhaps if we see more of their repressed desire for each other and less expressed awareness of their own unhappiness, the evening would proceed more briskly. After all, Ayckbourn perfects this delicate balance in "Absurd Person Singular," where a desperate wife attempts at least four methods of suicide at a Christmas party as her friends revel around her in holiday bliss. He's also succeeded doing it in "Taking Steps," "Confusions" and several others. In Hartford Stage's version under Greg Leaming's lackluster direction, at least, "Exchanges" misses the mark.

If you haven't seen much Ayckbourn before, you may enjoy "Exchanges" for it's subtle wit and theatricality. If you're an Ayckbourn aficionado, your mind may wonder to greater achievements.

"Intimate Exchanges" runs through February 1
at Hartford Stage Company
Tickets range $23.50-$38
Call (860) 527-5151.

THE THEATER MIRROR, Boston's LIVE Theater Guide