Nora’s Ayckbourn play puts the audience in charge

Sarah Elizabeth Bedard and Jade Ziane in "Intimate Exchanges." Photo: A.R. Sinclair Photography

Sarah Elizabeth Bedard and Jade Ziane in “Intimate Exchanges.” Photo: A.R. Sinclair Photography

CAMBRIDGE – Prolific British playwright Alan Ayckbourn came up with a very interesting way to break down that “fourth wall” between the actors and their audience.

His play “Intimate Exchanges” offers theater-goers the opportunity to dramatically affect the track of the play, and its ending.

And while the production by the Nora Theatre Comopany at the Central Square Theater has chosen not to take up the full range of options Ayckbourn drew up – possibly keeping the sanity of the actors and the director intact – it is a funny, theatrical tour de force for actors Sarah Elizabeth Bedard (“Significant Other,” Speakeasy Stage) and Jade Ziane.

In an “open letter” to its audience, the theater put it this way: As an audience member in Intimate Exchanges, you’re asked to make choices at crucial moments in the characters’ relationships, guiding them to pick one path or the other. You’ll help one of two ordinary women, Celia or Sylvie, navigate all the complicated possibilities of love, heartbreak, dependence, independence and–perhaps most terrifying of all–garden parties.

The concept is not completely new, even if Ayckbourn’s tack is. “Shear Madness” has been allowing theater-goers to name whodunit at the Charles Playhouse for the past 37 years. Ayckbourn wrote “Intimate Exhanges” betweem 1982 and 1983 and the musical “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” followed in 1985, becoming the first Broadway musical to feature multiple endings as determined by the audience vote.

Ayckbourn wrote the play for two actors and to have 16 different endings, in essence eight plays, each with two different All eight major stories originate from a single opening scene. As the play progresses, the characters make choices, each of which causes the story to go in one of two directions, leading to one of 16 possible endings, encompassing 10 hours of content.

The Nora has chosen two plays – the so-called “Sylvie Track” and the “Celia Track,” both named for central female chacaters – both of which have two different endings, for a total of four different perfromances.

At a recent performance, the audience chose the “The Christening” ending, one of two possible endings in the “Sylvie Track.” The theater will perform both tracks on Saturdays at matinee and evening performances for those who want to see both.

With this kind of play that is fraught with possible disasters – given not only the multiple endings and the two actors playing all the roles – I always give a lot of credit to both the performers and the director when the train doesn’t run off the tracks.

Director Olivia D’Ambrosio helps Ziane stay on course as he captures three very different characters: gardener/caretaker Lionel Hepplewick, his father Joe Hepplewick and Toby Teasdale, the hard-drinking headmaster at a small private school who is floundering. Ziane is up to the task on all three.

Bedard shines both as the young, attractive, somewhat naive and uneducated Sylvie Bell, a housekeeper in the Teasdale home, and as Celia Tisdale, the long-suffering wife of Toby Teasdale who is questioning their future together. Bedard makes both characters her own; again, the two women couldn’t be more different in manner, style, and speech.

The early part of the play has Lionel Heppelwick — despite his limited education and job prospects – fancying himself as God’s gift to women, as he is about to take Sylvie on a date and is conspiring with Celia about possible future interaction.

Lionel and Sylvie do get together — “It was good, wasn’t it?” asks an insecure Sylvie – but Sylvie decides she also wants to be educated and that creates a possible Liza Doolittle-Henry Higgins arrangement between the undereducated and attractive Sylvie and the aging and dispirited headmaster Toby, who finds new life in teaching the young girl.

Where the “Sylvie Track” heads next will be up to you.

Both Bedard and Ziane stay en pointe with the disparate English accents and manners of speech of the characters, not an easy task.

Ayckbourn’s witty dialogue and penchant for creating quirky characters are on full display here, meaning that whichever track you choose – and whatever ending you and your fellow audience members decide upon – you’re in for a lot of fun and some skilled performances.

The Nora Theatre Company production of Alan Ayckbourn’s “Intimate Exchanges.” Directed by Olivia D’Ambrosio. Scenic design by Anne Sherer. Costume design by Chelsea Kerl. Lighting design by John R. Malinowski. Sound design and composition by Nathan Leigh. At the Central Square Theater through Feb. 12.