I remember reading The Hound of the Baskervilles when I was in high school and being so intrigued by the twists of logic that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had devised for his master detective that I rushed out and bought a copy of The Complete Sherlock Holmes. For a while I was in heaven, reading tale after tale in quick succession, no sooner puzzling out what “The Man With the Twisted Lip” was up to than I was plunging headlong into “The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax.”
But after finishing about 20 of the Holmes stories, I found myself recognizing patterns. Though the deerstalker-capped sleuth’s solutions were still tricky enough to be surprising, by midvolume I was getting pretty good at predicting Doyle’s narrative strategies. If I couldn’t spot the bad guys, I could certainly tell when Holmes was about to do so. And once the rhythms became familiar, the task of devouring all 1,122 Complete pages began to seem daunting. Utterly reliable cleverness continued unabated in story after deftly crafted storybut the thrill was gone.
I find I’m feeling the same way these days about the work of playwright Alan Ayckbourn, whose complicated, often very funny comedy Intimate Exchanges is getting a complicated, often very funny partial workout at the Source Theatre. I say partial because the troupe’s press material indicates that the full script is some 400 pages (and two volumes) thick, that it features 31 scenes arranged in a structure not unlike a family tree, and that this structure allows for 16 different versions of a comedy involving 10 characters (all of whom are played by just two actors). Source is producing a mere six of those 16 versions, in a rondelay of three evenings, each of which has two possible endings. I saw two of them, involving six of the characters. Still with me? Well, things will get clearer as we go.
Ayckbourn’s trickily complex comedies have been popular in D.C. since the ’70s, when the Kennedy Center hosted a pair of pre-Broadway tryouts that were as laugh-provoking for their construction as for their jokes. I remember howling at Absurd Person Singular as the author followed three initially friendly couples through three increasingly disastrous Christmas Eves. Bedroom Farce, which divided the stage into thirds so three couples could match wits while leaping in various combinations between their respective bedrooms, was similarly bracing.
But by the time I caught The Norman Conquests, a three-evening trilogy in which Ayckbourn chronicled simultaneous events in the dining room, the living room, and the garden of one house on one socially catastrophic weekend, I was beginning to wonder whether the author was just a one-trick pony.
Turned out he wasn’t. Toward the middle of the ’80s, Ayckbourn’s plays acquired darker colors, as local audiences discovered when Arena Stage mounted The Revengers’ Comedies and A Chorus of Disapproval, and as was even more evident earlier this year when Round House staged Woman in Mind, a fiercely comic, resolutely haunting evening in which dramatic structure actively disintegrates as the heroine loses her sanity.
All three of those plays, however, were written a bit after Intimate Exchanges, which is slighter and more cartoonish, and springs from what you might call the Rube Goldberg period of Ayckbourn’s career. Structure is everything in the intertwined plays at Source, and the more familiar you are with the hoops the author is putting himself through, the more you’ll admire his craft. In theory, by attending more than one of the three evenings”A Garden Fete,” “A One Man Protest,” and “Affairs in a Tent”you’ll not just absorb additional jokes and comic business, but also better understand the characters’ reactions.
“Affairs in a Tent,” the evening that was offered up for the delectation of critics last weekend, focuses on Celia, the frustrated, very nervous wife of an alcoholic headmaster at a private school, and Lionel, the school’s ambitious but inept caretaker. When Lionel, whose every utterance sounds like a 10-year-old’s notion of double-entendre, asserts that he’s a “master baker,” Celia decides to start a business with him, over the strenuous objections of her husband, Toby, and Lionel’s girlfriend, Sylvie. Naturally, their first jobpreparing tea and sandwiches for a school functiongoes ridiculously wrong, and Celia, already verging on nervous collapse, ends up practically foaming at the mouth and wrapped like a mummy in one of her brand-new (and absurdly mis-sized) tablecloths.
At this point, the house lights come up, and a fussily overbearing subsidiary character (played, as are all the female roles, by Kate Eastwood Norris) says, “Don’t be alarmed. This is where we break the fourth wall.” She then asks the audience to choose whether Celia should be saved by Lionel or by her husband, and depending on crowd sentiment, Celia becomes either an upscale-catering mogul or a despondent, stay-at-home basket case. Lionel, meanwhile, becomes either her hapless chauffeur or a captain of the fast-food industry.
On opening night, Norris and Brian McMonagle (who plays all the male roles) performed both denouements, neither of which struck me as particularly snappy. But hey, the fun’s supposed to be in the contraption Ayckbourn’s built, not in the way it functions.
Norris and McMonagle are energetic and, for the most part, clever about distinguishing between their various characters. As Celia, who becomes very nasal as she struggles to maintain appearances in the face of social disaster, Norris occasionally appears to be channeling Maggie Smith; as working-class Sylvie, she’s scrappy; and as an officious old biddy named Irene Pridworthy, she’s plummily ripe (and hilariously overbosomed by costumer Rhonda Key). An old hand at playing upper-crusty Brits for Washington Stage Guild, McMonagle doesn’t make working-class Lionel as much fun as he might, but he’s deliciously silly as Celia’s next-door neighbor, Miles, and he makes Toby, her sad souse of a husband, surprisingly empathetic.
What neither of them can quite overcome is the frantic but not always funny staging that co-directors Joe Banno (the Washington City Paper’s opera critic) and Lofty Durham have devised for the show’s big garden-party disaster. The arranging of chairs, the setting of tables, and the buttering of bread (on both sides, naturally) needs to be uproarious, and it’s mostly just frenetic. Some of the physical problems Celia must overcome are too clearly manufacturedsetting up tables, for instance, she bunches them in one corner of the stage so that there’s no room around them for the folding chairs she’ll later have way too much trouble opening. And it quickly becomes clear that the myriad costume changes that allow two actors to play six characters are going to require a lot of time-killingboth by the author and by the performer who gets left alone on stage. Jaston Williams and Joe Sears manage something similar in their Tuna, Texas, shows, of course, and until last weekend, I’d never really appreciated how many soliloquies, radio broadcasts, and one-sided phone calls they’d built into their skits to permit the changeovers. Ayckbourn tries to vamp with more realistic devicescharacters talking to themselves or engaging in some sort of physical activityand they’re not nearly as persuasive.
Nor can it be said that the production mines the script’s jests for all they’re worth. At one point, I heard the words “objection” and “objective” in two successive sentencesand realized that a play on words had been allowed to just sit there, when it might have taken flight had it been inflected differently. And a couple of Lionel’s single-entendres were being similarly squandered on opening night.
Still, I’m being considerably more dyspeptic about all this than the rest of the audience was, and perhaps a troupe that has to deal with three plays, containing three times as many words, costumes, and cues as usual, should be cut a little slack.
There are, after all, those other two plots, and depending on when you attend Intimate Exchanges, you may well see a quite different show than I did (and even a different actor, because McMonagle has decided that one set of three characters and two endings is all he can reasonably do justice to). “A Garden Fete” evidently concentrates on the comic plight of the neglected Sylvie, who must decide whether to marry her inept master baker or study English literature with Celia’s drunken hubby. The climax is said to involve a gorilla suit and a rousing game of “pelt the varlet.” And anyone who thinks Celia’s hilariously oblivious Miles is worth a show of his own can get better acquainted with him in “A One Man Protest,” which focuses on his attemptsuntil he gets locked in a garden shedto rein in the unseemly activities of his slatternly wife, Rowena.
No doubt these events will be suffused with middle-class sentiment and powered by the addled logic and convoluted plot lines for which the playwright is justly celebrated. If you’ve not already discovered Ayckbourn, Intimate Exchanges offers a perfectly presentable excuse to do so. It ain’t genius, but it’s amusing. CP