Alan Ayckbourn is a major artist disguised as a commercial playwright. In this country he is widely regarded as the English Neil Simon, an ultra-reliable purveyor of well-made comedies for suburbanites, and only a handful of his 70-odd plays have been produced on or near Broadway. But those who were lucky enough to see “Private Fears in Public Places” at the 2005 Brits Off Broadway festival, or the film that Alain Resnais made out of it last year, know that Mr. Ayckbourn’s “comedies” of middle-class life are deadly serious and, more often than not, darkly melancholy. Would that more of them were produced in New York! Fortunately, Brits Off Broadway is now bringing us the American premiere of “Intimate Exchanges,” a cycle of eight head-bangingly funny plays that leaves no possible doubt of Mr. Ayckbourn’s seriousness–or his ingenuity.
All eight plays draw on the same cast of 10 characters, all of whom are played by two actors (Bill Champion and Claudia Elmhirst). All of the plays start the same way, with a woman strolling into her garden on a sunny June day and trying to decide whether or not to smoke a cigarette. The best possible explanation of what happens next is Mr. Ayckbourn’s own, supplied in a letter he wrote to his agent in 1982: “Mathematically it works that after about five seconds after curtain up, we go into a choice of first scenes. These two first scenes lead in turn to a choice of four second scenes. These again lead to the interval and a choice of eight third scenes which start the second act. Finally, these eight scenes themselves divide for a series of 10-15 minute last scenes of which there are 16 in all.”
What sounds impossibly complicated on paper turns out to be perfectly transparent on stage. The six main characters are a trio of suburban couples (two married, one not) who have reached turning points in their increasingly unsatisfying lives. Mr. Ayckbourn sends them down a series of divergent plot paths that lead to 16 different endings, some happy and others not….
How long do you get to be promising? Neil LaBute has been writing a play a year since 2000, and “In a Dark Dark House,” the latest of his dramatic studies of men behaving badly, is no better or worse than most of its predecessors, with which it shares a now-familiar catalogue of virtues and vices….
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