The most extraordinary feeling overcame me during the opening scene of Alan Ayckbourn’s A Cricket Match. It wasn’t quite a panic attack—more a troublingly farcical sense of déjà vu: I became convinced that I’d already seen the play the previous evening.
A Cricket Match is one of the sequence of eight interlocking Ayckbourn plays under the umbrella title of Intimate Exchanges in the Brits Off Broadway season at 59E59 Theaters, and the night before I’d taken potluck and seen Love in the Mist. Mr. Ayckbourn, the Bard of the English middle class, who also co-directs what amounts to his very own, very welcome mini-festival, has said that the plays needn’t be seen in any particular order and that he doesn’t expect anyone will be mad enough to see all eight. (Although some mad Ayckbourn enthusiasts intend to do just that.) I chose Love in the Mist, followed by A Cricket Match, for the extremely sound reason that I’m fond of cricket and mist.
The only thing I knew going in, however, was that two actors play all the different characters in the eight plays. Over the years, Mr. Ayckbourn has relished inventing impossibly difficult theatrical problems, taking pleasure in solving them. The process reached a mind-boggling apex in his 1999 House and Garden, which famously has two interconnecting plays running simultaneously with the same cast in two adjacent theaters. An actor would exit one play and dash next-door to enter breathlessly on cue in the other! It was nuts, but only if you were one of the actors.
Mr. Ayckbourn conceived Intimate Exchanges for his resident theater in Scarborough when it transpired one summer that he was left with a company of only two. He could have hired other actors and carried on with the season he originally planned. But that would have been too simple. Hence the eight-part Intimate Exchanges, and another first from Mr. Ayckbourn: He has provided his two actors—who must have prodigious memories—with a choice of alternative scenes they can perform on any given night.
So there I was watching A Cricket Match, and the opening scene, bizarrely, was exactly the same as the opening scene of Love in the Mist’s. There was the same garden set (though there’s nothing unusual about that for Mr. Ayckbourn: A number of his plays take place in a garden, a perfect symbol of middle-class England). But there, also, was Celia Teasdale, the troubled, disappointed wife of Toby Teasdale, the drunk headmaster of the second-rate private school Bilbury Lodge. And there was socially awkward, unhappily married Miles Coombes, the chairman of the board of governors for the school, doting on defeat as usual. And there was the same dialogue:
“Celia,” both performances of the plays began amusingly.
“Oh, hallo, Miles.”
“How are things?”
“Super. Was that you?”
“Was that you ringing?”
“I thought I heard somebody.”
“I don’t think it was me,” the hapless Miles continued apologetically on each night. “No, it couldn’t have been. Hang on, it could have very possibly been Hepplewick.”
“You know. Lionel Hepplewick. I thought I saw him stomping away a minute ago.”
“Oh. Really,” Celia repeated with her customary, snooty indifference to Hepplewick, the randy school caretaker. “Wonder what he wanted.”
“You’re looking busy,” said Miles, changing the subject.
“Yes. I’m taking down the sitting-room curtains,” Celia replied as she always did.