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Intimate Exchanges — 1812 Productions — at the Arden

Exchanges -- interiorAlan Ayckbourn loves combinations and permutations as much as a mathematician does.

The playwright is constantly coming up with different ways a single play can include multiple variations of a story.  His precision as an architect of simultaneous action in different spaces is miraculous. His ability to write alternative offshoots to pivotal scenes is equally uncanny.

One of his plays, “House and Garden” is presented on two separate stages at once, with actors needing split-second timing to get from one playing space to another. An audience has to see both halves of the play to have a complete idea of what goes on, but Ayckbourn is so clever, he crafts each half to be a complete theater experience, so no one is disappointed by seeing the action presented on one stage, where, say, “House” is playing, and the enjoyment is enhanced if someone gets to see both “House” and “Garden,” as is ideal.

In “The Norman Conquests,” Ayckbourn writes three different plays with the same characters, each play occurring in the same time frame in different places of a house- the dining room, the living room, and the garden. As you see each play, the memory of a cognate scene from another part of the triptych, i.e. recalling what is happening in the living room while you are seeing a parallel sequence in the garden, adds to the hilarity of a situation. By the time you see the third show in the series, which can be viewed in any order, you are howling at  lines and physical bits the significance of which fellow audience members might  not understand.

Let’s face it. As a theatrical trickster, Ayckbourn is a genius.

His play, “Intimate Exchanges” can be played in eight possible ways. Some theater companies present all eight in a series, and audiences randomly see a particular variation based on the performance they attend.

Mary Carpenter and her cast at 1812 Productions are not being so easy on themselves. They, Jennifer Childs and Anthony Lawton, are prepared to  turn on a dime, or at audience suggestion, from one alternative to the next.

Ayckbourn has built in crossroads at which decisions have to made as to which course of action characters could take. For instance, should a married woman accept a date with a man who clearly wants to seduce her, or does she demur, in which case her Lothario will go out with the woman’s housemaid instead?

1812 allows a member of the audience to make that decision, so that a different outcome can occur at any given performance. A sound cue is heard, a light shines on person who must opt for one development or another, and Childs and Lawton follow that person’s direction.

For the actors, who are already playing dual roles — husband and Lothario, wife and housemaid — the exercise must be very exciting. They have no idea what path “Intimate Exchanges” will take that night and must be ready for all contingencies. For the 1812 audience, the choice is of little moment beyond being an amusing little game because it’s only going to see one option and has, for the most part — The audience could harbor an Ayckbourn aficionado. —  no idea of what could have experienced, and whether there are better choices than the one their confrere in the audience made.

On opening night, one woman determined the married woman should accept the Lothario’s offer. Another woman, with a moral streak, later determined the woman should back her husband over the Lothario while a third dictated the husband would act in an agitated, rather than a calm manner, when dealing with an irritating situation.

Childs, Lawton, Carpenter, and others at 1812 may know if these options yield the best  possible “Intimate Exchanges.” The audience doesn’t — Well, I don’t anyhow — so I’d like to think there’s a better version of the eight than the one that was played when I was in attendance.

While “Intimate Exchanges” had some excellent moments, and Childs and Lawton were superb as individuals and as a team, the play doesn’t build enough steam to keep you totally interest in its plot or its characters. Hilarity is neither non-stop nor guaranteed. The relationship between the characters is too clear-cut to create real tension or drama or even the comic fear that one character is going too far or another is making a drastic mistake.

Ayckbourn may have built in different avenues for his plot to take, but the story, whatever direction it make take, doesn’t drive “Intimate Exchanges.” Neither do the quick changes Lawton executes with such aplomb as the Lothario, Lionel, and the husband, Toby.

The best and most comically satisfying moments are the result of Ayckbourn’s lines at a juncture where they comment on the action instead of moving it forward or foment any kind of change.

In a scene I hope is constant but may be dependent on whether the wife, Celia, sticks by Toby or runs off with Lionel, the married couple, Celia and Toby, are at a spa or seaside resort to give Toby a rest from his duties as the schoolmaster of a British boarding school.

Toby has had a heart episode and is ordered to relax by the doctor he consulted. Celia, scrambling to find a resort that has vacancies during the “busy season,” books the pair in a well-situated but slightly run-down hotel that caters almost exclusively to a geriatric clientele. The Teasdales, in their mid-40s, are veritable children next to the elderly, and newsy, fellow guests who marvel at Celia and Toby’s ability to ambulate on their own.

During a quiet, comically uncomfortable afternoon tea, the cucumber and tomato sandwiches of which fill Celia adequately, Toby starts grousing about the hotel, its guests, and its facilities.

His sarcasm escalates with each utterance. Lawton revels in reeling off the next caustic remark while Childs stews and bristles at Toby’s lack of grace or appreciation.

Celia tries to explain the convenient availability of this one establishment among the dozens that were solidly booked, but Toby is not be to assuaged, and Lawton becomes sharper and meaner and fiercer and funnier with each new complaint or sour observation he can summon. Childs’s Celia can only agree while continuing to explain the general paucity of other accommodations, but Toby’s anger is snowballing, and his wit is just getting started. He must denigrate every fixture and every one in sight to vent his absolute disgust of the hotel.

Ayckbourn, Lawton, and the audience all enjoy a feast of ever more vituperative invective. The litany of deficiencies, and jokes at the expense of the elderly — one-liners about walkers and wheezers galore — sustains a wave of hilarity. For the first time in the production, you take a liking to Toby and think maybe that woman who chose to have Celia give him a second chance knew what she was doing.

Lawton continues to have a marvelous second act because that rascal Ayckbourn has placed Lionel at the hotel as a waiter who uses his position to tell Celia he loves her and to ply her with a seemingly unending supply of tea, sandwiches, and cakes she comments are unacceptably stale.

The actor now has to become a quick-change artist, shedding a tie and donning glasses as Toby, looking formal and setting out cups as Lionel.

The situation has caught up with the lines, and Ayckbourn’s humor becomes as physical as it is verbal.

Childs more than plays her part in the mayhem. Suddenly Celia has to orchestrate it so that Toby and Lionel do see each other (a dramatic imperative in addition to the general necessity of the men never being on stage together because Lawton plays both of them!). She also has to be Lucy-like in gobbling up cucumber and tomato sandwiches in a quantity her diminutive frame cannot handle. Then, Ayckbourn has a gambit in which Celia is constantly changing tables because Lionel continues to bring tea service to stations his boss cannot see from the place in the dining room he stays to make sure the elderly guests don’t run off with the entire allotment of stale cakes.

In this quarter of the play, the third quarter as it turns out, 1812 shows the comedy inherent in “Intimate Exchanges.” Dialogue, plot, and acting technique all blend to make grand and delightful sequence that runs counter to the pat blandness of the rest of the piece.

Until, if you will, this balcony scene, “Intimate Exchanges” played mundanely. Lines seemed expedient and utilitarian rather than crackling with wit and amounting to a rollicking tantrum. Childs and Lawton were fine in their dual roles, and they paced themselves well, but neither the show nor Carpenter’s production had any zip. The exposition had few one-liners of note. The characters seemed stock and predictable. Celia’s dilemma of choosing between a cheekily flirtatious Lionel and her dowdy grump of a husband seemed, pardon the expression, academic. Lionel throwing off the housemaid, Sylvie, to trade up to Celia, causes no effect to the audience. Lionel might seem opportunistic and spiteful, but he doesn’t come off as mean, and Sylvie shows no signs of heartbreak. Her attitude towards Lionel practically forced him to one-up or disappoint her.

A 90-second sketch following curtain calls mimes what would happen if the audience had made different choices from the one that directed this particular night’s action. In that sequence, you see Sylvie has a bigger role in some “Intimate Exchanges” variations. One wonders if  a version with more of Sylvie and Lionel would be more fun.

The first act of 1812’s “Intimate Exchanges” doesn’t get off the ground. Lawton provides some sport by establishing Lionel as lovesick for Celia and as more than a bit of a braggart, but the byplay between the characters seems to lack juices, and the sharp lines we know Ayckbourn is capable to writing seem too sporadic to matter.

The show does not take off.

That’s why it’s such a pleasant surprise when Lawton, as Toby, goes off on his peevish tangent. All of a sudden, hearing the elderly impugned becomes funny. Lawton practically drools acid as he hisses out his complaints, and Childs tries to, at first, ignore him by nonchalantly sipping her tea and forcing down another cucumber sandwich.

Suddenly we have a routine going, and it’s a good one. It salvages the general impression of “Intimate Exchanges” and 1812’s effort in producing it.

The day is not quite saved. You never quite lose the dry taste of the lackluster first act, and the last 15 minutes of Ayckbourn’s show are only mildly amusing, borrowing momentum from Childs’s evolving loss of patience and Lawton’s quick changes. But you have seen genuine artistry from all concerned. Ayckbourn has constructed a scene that is almost volcanic in its path to eruption. You see his skill as a craftsman and as a wordsmith and appreciate it.

Lawton beings his tirade in a throwaway deadpan. Looking as bitter as he has portrayed Toby throughout, he  calmly tosses out his first barb. Its sting would almost be missed if Ayckbourn’s line was not so funny and seemingly out of character. Toby has been caustic before, but not to the level, and not with the humor, he is about to display.

Another quiet salvo leads to more pronounced taunt which becomes a more carefully articulated snarl of a comment. Then, it’s off to the races with Lawton becoming more and more emphatic in his hate for the place Celia has landed his Toby.

Childs does not sit idly by as Lawton grouses. You watch as Celia’s “fed up” meter rises. You know she’s already at rope’s end at Toby’s insolent abuse and carping comments. His foaming uproar touches her last nerve. She knows Toby is blaming her more than he blames the hotel for his fit of temper and his discomfort. Rage, deeper and more dangerous than Toby’s, gathers in her system. Anger will soon do worse to her digestion than those dratted sandwiches. Celia may attempt to comment rationally and with good manners. But Childs shows a woman who is being driven to the edge.  Even when Celia agrees with Toby and throws in a grouse of her own, you can see Childs seething. All she wants to do is get rid of her husband.

Of course, Toby looks good by comparison when Celia sees the practically stalking Lionel in his server’s uniform. Now Celia has a different dilemma, one that will grate on her nerves and trigger her anger as much as her displeasure with Toby.

Childs is wonderful as a woman who has to stave off an ardent admirer, one who keeps plying her with tea to the extent she says she can hear it sloshing in her stomach, while learning to appreciate an ass of a husband who, at least, can support her and occasionally provide her some company.

Childs has always been famous for her piercing line readings, and she has a grand time with Ayckbourn’s language in her second act scenes with both Toby and Lionel. She is also quite telling in a subtle but effective scene at the end of Ayckbourn’s play.

The bag is mixed. You have to wallow through a lot of chaff to get to the wheat, and Childs’s Sylvie barely registers as more than a cipher, but the wait for the second act is worth it. “Intimate Exchanges” is redeemed because when Ayckbourn becomes deft, Childs and Lawton are right there to meet him in competence and take matters further with their well-honed comic skill.

Lance Kniskern does a fine job designing a lot that can double as a rustic yard and the terrace of a hotel that has the appointments of a posher day. The levels he creates are perfect for the hotel table layout. They give Carpenter a lot of room to animate the play and to move the audience’s focus from a single spot.

Alison Roberts’s costumes for Toby and Lionel are pretty basic, but her dresses for Celia struck the right note, and the wigs she chose for Childs were well considered. I particularly liked the yellow print summer frock Celia wears in the second act.

Stage manager Tom Shotkin is engaging while explaining how the path of each performance of 1812’s “Intimate Exchanges” will be decided and does a fine job posing the alternatives from which the selected audience member has to choose.

“Intimate Exchanges,” a produced by 1812 Productions, runs through Sunday, September 21 at the Arcadia Stage (second floor) of the Arden Theatre, 40 North 2nd Street, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $40 to $26 and can be obtained by calling 215-592-9560 or by visiting www.1812productions.org.

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