Alan Ayckbourn plays are known for being all about the gimmick, with complicated plot structures overlapping, intertwining and doubling back. But with Intimate Exchanges, we get Ayckbourn on crystal meth. You can see this play 16 times and never see it the same way twice, as the end of every scene calls for a character to make a choice that can radically change the course of events. If that's not enough, the play's about six men and five women, all of whom are played by the same two actors.
South Coast Repertory's current version starts with Celia Teasdale, the unhappy wife of a private schoolmaster, deciding to smoke a cigarette in the garden, leaving her in place for a visit by the school's handyman, Lionel. This catalyzes a series of choices that lead Celia down a path of confrontation, collapse and recovery that remarkably transforms her from timorous doormat to coolly assured businesswoman.
Whether or not we give a damn depends on the actors. Fortunately, Kandis Chappell is devastating as the hysterically repressed Celia; her tea-party breakdown is at once horrifying, heart-breaking and shockingly funny. She also plays the flighty housekeeper Sylvie and very nearly steals the show as Irene Pridworthy, a formidable school board member. Richard Doyle finds bruised humanity and inexplicable charm in his portrayal of Celia's husband, the drunken cynic Toby. He also makes the most out of his flat-out comic turn as Miles Coombes, the epitome of the upper-class British twit. But it's as Lionel, the one ray of hope in Celia's life, that Doyle turns in his subtlest performance: initially won over by his earnestness, it's hard not to share Celia's disappointment when his true fecklessness is revealed.
Intimate Exchanges at South Coast Repertory's Argyros Stage, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555; scr.org. Thurs.-Fri., March 25-26 & Wed.-Thurs., April 1, 7:45 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2 & 7:45 p.m. Through April 3. $19-$55.