Wigged out

In a recent interview with The Dallas Morning News, Todd Waite, one of the two actors who play eight different characters in Alan Ayckbourn's bleak two-part comedy Intimate Exchanges, was quoted as saying: "It's impossible to act the same in a different wig."

Waite has appeal and confidence, as does the other actor, Julia Gibson, with whom he constantly metamorphoses in A Cricket Match and Confessions in a Garden Shed, Ayckbourn's two plays about infidelity and its emotional traps. But having seen only one of the plays, A Cricket Match, it occurs to me that Gibson and Waite have been asked to stretch their professionalism until it snaps. A Cricket Match is the thinnest and flimsiest of frameworks on which to explore the travails of married life, not to mention ask two performers to constantly reinvent themselves in front of a live audience.

Yes, Todd Waite and Julia Gibson prove themselves flexible for all kinds of comic moods, but Ayckbourn and director Jonathan Moscone come close to exploitation in their use of these two actors for a romantic farce that is, in retrospect, almost insultingly meager of ingenuity and insight. Waite obviously works hard during this production. His labor might explain why he made the inane comment about wigs. If he truly believes this, then the colossal misfire that is A Cricket Match has found complicity in at least one of its two Dallas performers. Waite and Gibson prove that, when actors are given such slender portions by the playwright, they cannot satisfy audience members who think that performances should rely on more than wigs and costumes. For ultimately, A Cricket Match is an acting exercise disguised as a full-length play; the only things that differentiate one character from one another are tone of voice, appearance, and the attention-straining indulgence that Ayckbourn asks of his audience.

The rampant ego here seems to be Ayckbourn's, not the actors'. Often called "the British Neil Simon," and enjoying enormous success both here and in his native country, Ayckbourn has for almost 30 years spun run-amok heterosexual relationships into box-office gold with plays like Absurd Person Singular, How the Other Half Loves, and perhaps his blackest of comedies, A Small Family Business, performed in North Texas by both Theatre Three and Theatre Arlington.

What has generally distinguished Ayckbourn's comedies from routine farcical convention is his willingness to attach each frothy, sugary bite to a bitter aftertaste. Typically, an Ayckbourn farce doesn't soothe audiences with a shared recognition of our common foibles; it reminds us how our emotional deficiencies and hypocrisies wreak real havoc (not to mention gut-busting pain) in our lives. A Cricket Match is no exception, and it's almost rescued by the playwright's willingness to endow his characters, in the final scene, with the respect of an unpleasant honesty that he withholds from them, and us, during the rest of the play.

A Cricket Match takes a rather unflattering snapshot of the affair between Miles (Waite), a timid worrywart who heads the board of a posh London prep school, and Celia (Gibson), the uptight, heavy-drinking wife of the school's equally alcoholic headmaster, Toby. Played by Waite again, Toby is chiefly distinguishable from his "best friend" Miles by a salt-and-pepper mop, a rude attitude, and what is either a set of prosthetic buck teeth or deliberately labored enunciation by Waite.

In the meantime, Miles' wife, Rowena (Gibson again), is distinguished from nervous, chatty Celia chiefly by the fact that she's wearing a reddish wig instead of a blonde one, and by a tendency to smile a lot, spread her arms expansively while she's talking, and mutter sexy statements. She's as thrilled that her husband, awkward Miles, is having a fling as self-absorbed, cruel Toby is contemptuous--but not exactly jealous--of his wife Celia's extramarital dalliance.

Farce, of course, bounces along the extreme points on the emotional spectrum, requiring its participants to say and do illogical, even ridiculous things. But what separates a trifle like A Cricket Match from Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest or even Neil Simon's Plaza Suite is a preoccupation with theater for theater's sake. Wilde and Simon (at his best) use the elements of live performance to make cringingly honest observations--psychoanalyses, even--about smart, civilized people grappling with their own passions. A Cricket Match--at least in the Dallas Theater Center version--is about two stage actors donning and shedding one persona after another, heedless of the fact that there's no psychological discipline, no ring of authentic scrutiny to their antics.

You could argue that asking a farce too many questions deflates the play before it even has a chance to set sail. I agree--all basic questions of motivation should be answered by the playwright, who mustn't distract a discerning audience with too many gaping holes. Why does the clumsy Miles, who repeatedly expresses concern about firing his drunken best friend Toby from the headmaster post, not mind boinking said drunken best friend's wife, Celia? Why does Celia's lascivious mother (Gibson, of course) suddenly invade the situation with owl-like specs, loudly inquiring about Miles' interest in her daughter, and then disappear, without anyone explaining her connection to this affair? Why does a blond, curly-haired student (Waite) mince his way through the play's second act, when Miles and Celia are negotiating the end of the affair, but in no way affect the outcome of the play?

The answer to all these mundane questions is this: so two talented actors can make speedy off-stage costume changes and create equally superficial on-stage personalities. If A Cricket Match built toward anything more impressive than a disjointed series of mildly amusing, extremely familiar set pieces, we'd be thrilled at this display of thespian versatility by Todd Waite and Julia Gibson.

But as a companion witness to this production noted, the audience is always aware that these actors are acting, because that's all Ayckbourn allows them to do. There are glimmers of emotional complexity, especially in the aforementioned resolution, but they're ultimately blocked by the show's smug assumption of its own entertainment value. A Cricket Match never overcomes a rather narcissistic faith in the power of theatricality for its own sake. By offering us no reason to believe beyond a perfunctory recitation of actor's tricks, it bludgeons every theatergoer with complacency.

Intimate Exchanges runs through October 5. Call 522-


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