By Michele Markarian
Intimate Exchanges, Written by Alan Ayckbourn; Directed by Olivia D’Ambrosio. Presented by The Nora Theatre Company, 450 Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge through February 12.
Lionel is a gardener, who is employed – like his elderly father before him – by the wealthy Celia Teasdale and her alcoholic headmaster husband, Mr. Teasdale. Sylvie is a young woman who is also employed by the Teasdales to do work around the home. All of the characters want to remold and remake the working-class Sylvie, including Sylvie herself. These were the characters and plotlines that were present the night I saw “Intimate Exchanges”, as there are actually two different versions of the play, with four different endings, two possibilities per show, that the audience votes on during intermission. All of the characters are played by two actors, Sarah Elizabeth Bedard and Jade Ziane.
It only sounds confusing on paper – as a piece of theater, it’s entirely linear until the ending, when even the actors don’t know which outcome they will be performing. Audience members drop a glass stone into a jar – A Christening and Return of the Prodigal were our two choices – that are tallied during intermission. This is really fun, as you have no idea what the heck you’re voting for; it’s a roll of the dice. It’s also a bonding experience with other audience members – there’s something in a shared democratic outcome that inspires connection and conversation.
The performances are superb – Bedard and Ziane manage upper and working class British accents, as well as a host of costumes and props, magnificently. Bedard plays both Sophie and Celia, and it took a few turns for my husband, as well as the man sitting next to me, to figure out that she was playing both roles – that’s how different her affect was for each. The very funny Ziane plays Lionel, Lionel’s wheelchair-bound father, and Mr. Teasdale. The interplay between these two strong actors is astounding; the fact that they are able to keep their accents straight is no easy feat. D’Ambrosio’s excellent direction is fast and fluid. Anne Sherer’s sprawling set design adapts perfectly to the various scenes – a garden in Act 1, which flips around to be a garden and a fairground in Act II.
For all of its lighthearted fun, Ayckbourn is not afraid to tackle some timely themes, sexism being one of them. “It’s a child’s duty to kneel before its Mum. It’s a woman’s duty to kneel before a man. It’s a man’s duty to kneel before God,” says Lionel’s father earnestly to Sylvie, while the audience groaned audibly. Class is another one. Sylvie, like all of us, can choose to be either the victim or the victor of her environment. Will Sylvie marry Lionel? Will she seduce Mr. Teasdale? Or will she become her own woman and leave them all behind? I won’t give away the ending we chose, just in case you go and choose a different one. But the performances are so real and so exciting, with one character running off before another appears as there can never more than two onstage, that you may want to go back a second time to see a different version. I know I do. For more info, go to: https://www.centralsquaretheater.org/shows/intimate-exchanges/