The annual Philly Fringe Festival opens Friday night, but the curtain rose early on one entry that’s also the season starter for 1812 Productions, the city’s stage company devoted to comedy. Although the play, “Intimate Exchanges,” is not new – Sir Alan Ayckbourn wrote it in 1982 – it befits a Fringe Festival because of the unusual way the show moves forward.
Ayckbourn (“Absurd Person Singular,” “The Norman Conquests” and 76 other plays) wrote 16 re-arrangeable scenes for “Intimate Exchanges,” a fluffy piece about the pompous and besotted head of a British private school and his long-suffering wife. Normally, the actors decide beforehand how the plot will take shape and choose the appropriate scenes, then change the play around at times during a run. It’s a modular play, which is a gimmick as much as a creative choice. Putting it together is like choosing pre-poured sections of concrete to make a building.
The folks at 1812 Productions have come up with, they maintain, a new twist – let the audience decide how a character will react to a quandary at three key points in the show at each performance. At those times, a light in the theater shines as a surprise on a particular audience member, who then makes the decision. The actors immediately move forward into the appropriate scenes until the next decision is made.
This calls for a feat of production – not just for the actors, who must have each scene ready on a second’s notice, but for the crew, which has to work Lance Kniskern’s set, James Leitner’s lighting, Michael Hahn’s sound design and Alison Roberts’ costumes to fit the instantly chosen scenes.
So I can’t really tell you about the play you may be seeing – only about the scenes I saw. You may see a completely different comedy after the set-up about a socially inappropriate landscaper and the wife of the school-master.
What’s impressive about the production is the acting and not the play, which borders on lame. (At least the version I saw on Wednesday, when it opened after a string of previews.) In fact, if all the acting in this year’s Fringe reaches the level where Jennifer Childs and Anthony Lawton work, it’ll be a mighty festival. Together, they play seven roles; the way the show unfolded on my visit, I saw Childs and Lawton perform five of them.
“Intimate Exchanges” is funny, but I got the feeling that it never really got to the point where it would be memorably funny – it’s more a combination of chuckles in a smoldering plot that doesn’t really catch fire. Even its ending – or, the ending I saw – seemed to peter out and what’s more, after the show’s over the actors give a 90-second mime of all the scenes we missed. Without any context, that little post-performance is mystifying – a series of movements that tell a joke we’ve never been in on.
Yet here we heartily thank two of the city’s brightest and most visible talents: Childs, a sharp all-around actor who’s the producing artistic director of 1812 Productions, and Lawton, as precise and convincing in comedy as he is in everything else. Together, they’re constantly fun to watch in the production – a quick change of costume brings them back onto the stage in wholly different personas and line deliveries. One of the most satisfying aspects of live theater is seeing the way the production of a play coalesces with the play itself – if it does. In this case, “Intimate Exchanges” is clearly a better experience from the force of the talent that drives it.
“Intimate Exchanges,” from 1812 Productions, runs through Sept. 21 at the Arden Theatre, 2d Street north of Market Street. 215-592-9560 or www.1812productions.org. For all information about the Fringe Festival: www.fringearts.com.