Claudia Elmhirst and Bill Champion in Intimate Exchanges
(© Tony Bartholomew)
Claudia Elmhirst and Bill Champion in Intimate Exchanges
(© Tony Bartholomew)
Alan Ayckbourn makes Tom Stoppard look like a slacker. Although the latter's Tony Award-winning The Coast of Utopia clocked in at about nine hours over three installments, Ayckbourn's 1982 opus Intimate Exchanges -- currently receiving a terrific production at 59E59 as part of the Brits Off Broadway Festival -- is comprised of more than 32 hours spread out over 16 plays.

But while Utopia boasted a cast of 44 and a set script, Exchanges, co-directed by Ayckbourn and Tim Luscombe, has only an enormously talented cast of two actors (Bill Champion and Claudia Elmhirst), who not only have to portray all of the characters; they also have to keep all of the various combinations of plays straight in their heads.

It works like this: at the top of each show, Celia (Elmhirst) stands in her backyard and makes a simple decision -- to smoke or not to smoke. If she smokes, the narrative breaks off into a scene in which she hears the front door buzzer ring and allows Lionel (Champion) to enter. If she doesn't smoke, she goes into a garden shed, doesn't hear the buzzer, but instead is interrupted in her work by the arrival of Miles (Champion again) who has cut across the lawn into her backyard. From there on out, various characters make a variety of decisions that determine what scene will be played next.

Intimate Exchanges is broken down into eight separately titled programs (each with two endings). I saw four: Affairs in a Tent, Events on a Hotel Terrace, Love in the Mist, and A Game of Golf. The first two had nearly identical first acts but radically different second acts, the third was completely different, and the final one fell somewhere in between. Still confused? Don't worry about it; just go book your tickets. The more often you go, the more you'll likely get out of the experience.

Ayckbourn's observations on life, love, and the human condition are both hilarious and insightful. A marital spat between Toby and Celia has the former declaring, "We don't say whole things. We say half things. Because we're frightened the whole thing might be too much for the other one to swallow." In another scenario, the lower-class Sylvie embarks on an affair with business executive Miles, whom she believes will be able to offer her something different. But when they go away together, she's very much disappointed. "I wanted something special," she declares. "That's what this was supposed to be about. [...] And it's all like the same as -- ordinary."

The pair's comic timing is perfect, and the often farcical action has audiences roaring with laughter. My favorite bit is in Events on a Hotel Terrace, when Lionel, who has become a waiter, keeps serving Celia tea in order to have a conversation with her under the watchful eye of his boss. And since "tea" in England is more than just a drink, Celia has to constantly devour cakes and sandwiches and even stuff some of them into her purse.

The actors are so good at what they do that it's very easy to forget that there are only two of them -- and this is despite the fact that they're often sporting rather ridiculous wigs. Champion is especially proficient at morphing into his various roles, giving them completely different mannerisms, vocal inflections, and character tics. Elmhirst doesn't quite disappear into her characters in the same way, but she still manages to make them distinct from one another. Celia is her most fully developed creation, and her portrayal of the character's various unfortunate endings (at least in the plays I witnessed) are often heart-wrenching.

One drawback to the current staging is that scenic designer Michael Holt has been forced to adapt the original much larger in-the-round set so that it fits into a small proscenium house. This has resulted in some rather lengthy scene changes that affect the plays' overall momentum. Still, it's a small price to pay for a series of evenings that are so richly entertaining.