A playwright's revenge on Hollywood homophobes.

Intimate Exchanges
ACT Theatre
Number of actors: Two, both local.

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Sir Alan Ayckbourn is a 69-year-old Brit who can't stop writing plays about unhappy couples. The current count is somewhere in the low 70s. One hesitates to give a definite number—by the time this review goes to print, he will have inflicted another upon the world. Quantity, needless to say, is not quality.

Sir Ayckbourn wrote Intimate Exchanges in June of 1982, when he was (rightfully) bored with himself. It's a gimmicky comedy for two actors with 16 possible endings. Scenes branch off throughout the play and decisions by one actor—does she light the cigarette or doesn't she?—signal to the other actor which scene will come next. To learn all 16 story lines, the actors would have to memorize 17 hours of dialogue. Longtime locals Marianne Owen and R. Hamilton Wright have learned only four.

Owen and Wright are clearly having a ball, farcing about as an unhappy married couple (he stays up all night drinking alone and she's frustrated, sexually and otherwise), an unhappy unmarried couple, and some other unhappy people. The problem: Sir Ayckbourn's writing is terrible and cheap. He's the Marquis de Double Entendre. For example: The unhappy unmarried man (a gardener) goes on and on to the sexually frustrated woman about how a stone pathway has "got to be properly laid. It's got to be laid properly. It's got to be well laid!" "Master baker" is deployed as a punch line.

At this late date, it feels disingenuous and fusty to criticize a writer for being bourgeois, but in Sir Ayckbourn's case, the criticism is unavoidable. His characters are straight out of a Das Kapital burlesque: selfish, middle-class dullards who want a little more money, a little more drinking, and a little more fucking—but not too much, never enough to make for, say, an interesting play. When Hermann Hesse described the bourgeois soul in 1927, he could have been writing a character study for Ayckbourn: "He will never surrender himself either to lust or asceticism... the bourgeois treasures nothing more highly than the self (rudimentary as his may be). And so at the cost of intensity he achieves his own preservation and security."

The opening-night audience, to its discredit, tittered and hee-hawed and slapped its thighs. People love to see themselves onstage. Confidential to ACT: You must break up with your audience. You deserve a better one. BRENDAN KILEY

The Little Dog Laughed
Intiman Theatre
Number of actors: Four, all local.

Douglas Carter Beane's The Little Dog Laughed is a frothy comedy about people willing to do horrible things to get what they want. A similar theme ran through Beane's As Bees in Honey Drown, the off-Broadway hit about a young gay writer exploited by a dazzling con artist, which was optioned by Hollywood then systematically "de-gayed" by the studio, driving would-be screenwriter Beane to quit and stranding the project in production limbo.

The Little Dog Laughed is Beane's revenge, charting the Hollywood-optioning and systematic de-gaying of a hit New York play, with Beane upping the roman-à-clef ante with the addition—or at least specification—of a closeted gay actor, Mitchell, whose attachment to the project secures its production. When Mitchell considers life outside the closet, all hell breaks loose. (As Mitchell's acid-tongued agent puts it: A straight actor playing a gay role is brave, but a gay actor playing a gay role is just gloating.)

At Intiman, Little Dog is brought to respectable life by a cast of four led by Neal Bledsoe as the closeted Mitchell and Christa Scott-Reed as his ruthless agent Diane. Bledsoe fills out his handsome cipher with a charming goofiness and Scott-Reed tears into her reptilian role with relish. But the supporting roles—the rent boy Alex (Quinlan Corbett), who threatens to lure Mitchell out of the closet, and Alex's best friend/fuck-buddy Ellen (Megan Hill), who helps bring the agent's diabolical solution to fruition—feel a bit undercooked, thanks in part to director Fracaswell Hyman's insistence on treating Beane's brisk, stylish satire as a groundbreaking "issues play." Instead of a dazzling comedic soufflé that packs a punch, we get a Showtime dramedy with full-frontal nudity and a breathtakingly cynical ending. (Which is still pretty good.) DAVID SCHMADER

Search and Destroy
Balagan Theatre
Number of actors: Eleven, all local.

Most of the problems in Search and Destroy, which is a failure, are tied to Howard Korder's script. It attempts to capture the essence of the final years of the last decade of the 20th century, which many philosophers correctly believe spanned from the end of World War I to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 (the '90s were the first decade of the 21st century). Like the movie The New Age (which was made in the '90s but is really about the '80s), Search and Destroy locates the essence of that decade in a new kind of greed—a greed that has converted the pursuit of money into a spiritual quest. During the '80s, you didn't just try to make money, you tried to make the making of money a personal religion, a personal myth. This was the new greed, the new Odyssey.

Search and Destroy has two parts: one that works and one that falls apart. The section that works runs for about an hour and has a New Age guru named Dr. Waxling (played by Bert Matias) as the motor of its narrative. A bankrupt man, Martin Mirkheim (played by Gabe Franken), decides to buy the rights for a horrible self-help book written by Dr. Waxling. Mirkheim is willing to risk everything to achieve this mad, mad dream. The second part of play, however, turns to cocaine for its narrative motor and everything starts to go very wrong—the ridiculous murder, the absurd Latino drug dealers, the predictably amoral conclusion to Mirkheim's quest. Even the wonderfully strange performance by Shobhit Agarwal (he plays an East Indian investor) does not survive the crash. The only way to improve the second half is to throw it away. CHARLES MUDEDE