SOLANA BEACH — Domestic violence is not necessarily limited to physical violence, as Alan Ayckbourn has made abundantly clear through the course of many of his plays. Verbal injuries do quite nicely for driving people to the brink--whether by the slow suicide of drink or by nervous breakdown and hospitalization.
Such is the situation in Ayckbourn's "Intimate Exchanges," which closed at the Old Globe Sunday, and his "Just Between Ourselves," playing at the North Coast Repertory Theatre though June 7.
One of the chief differences between these plays, however, is that while "Intimate Exchanges" presents choices, "Just Between Ourselves" just catalogues problems. The result is a static play with five characters incapable of helping one another.
Under Ginny-Lynn Safford's intelligent direction, this artfully written show does not lack for polish--just heart and life.
At the center of the story is an old Morris Minor automobile put up for sale by Dennis and Vera. It belongs to Vera, but she no longer drives it, and for some time it has sat in the garage, imprisoned by a stuck door.
A young man named Neil comes to look at it as a possible birthday present for his wife, Pam. She, however, does not want Neil to buy her the car. She wants to buy it for herself, someday, when she gets a job and has money of her own.
In a sense, the car represents freedom to each of the women. For Vera, it is a freedom she has abandoned because of a lack of confidence.
For Pam, who is unhappy in her marriage, the car represents her own potential to break free. She doesn't want her freedom given to her; she wants to take it. But she also shows an ambivalence about the car that betrays her own mixed feelings about striking out on her own.
Complicating Vera's and Dennis' relationship is Dennis' mother, Marjorie.
Marjorie lives with them and, under a thin veneer of pleasantries, she and Vera are at war for primacy in their household. It is a war where one woman's rearrangement of another woman's hanging plant can be construed as a deadly skirmish. It is also a war that Dennis doesn't acknowledge. He fails to help here just as he fails to pry open the garage door.
The cast does fine individual work, but perhaps because of the cocooned nature of their characters, never quite pulls it off as an ensemble.
Coralie Schatz, as Vera, with her high tremulous voice, her thin pointed face and heavy-lidded eyes, creates a touching picture of a woman barely held together with glue and twine.
Jack Pritchard's Dennis is as likable as the unaware husband can be. He is a regular Joe who does not understand that it is not only appliances that get broken, but people.
As Pam, West provides some of the sorely needed energy in this show. She is pent-up and frustrated, possibly a younger version of Vera. But it is not clear just what is holding her back from what she wants to do.
Patricia Di Meo and Brian Salmon do good work as Marjorie and Neil, but, as written, the character of Neil is utterly inscrutable and that of Marjorie completely unsympathetic.
The set by Paul Bedington is beautifully detailed, from the "moss" growing between the "cracks" of the patio paving, to the scattered junk in the garage, to the car itself--which entered the building only after a wall was knocked out.
The costumes by Penny Burroughs are generally appropriate, although Marjorie's clothes might have been a bit more subtle in their witchiness. Scott Resnick's lighting and Lawrence Czoka's sound design work effectively.
The greatest problem with Ayckbourn dramas is that sometimes the affective side gets lost amid his cleverness. One of the touching moments of "Intimate Exchanges" was when Ayckbourn showed that even his most cynical character was capable of feeling.
Here there are no such moments. And without them, "Just Between Ourselves" moves along listlessly. Like Vera's car, it knows it isn't going anywhere.
"JUST BETWEEN OURSELVES"
By Alan Ayckbourn. Director is Ginny-Lynn Safford. Set by Paul Bedington. Lighting by Scott Resnick. Sound by Lawrence Czoka. Costumes by Penny Burroughs. With Jack Pritchard, Coralie Schatz, Brian Salmon, Patricia Di Meo and Gail West. At 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and Sunday at 7 p.m., with Sunday matinees May 24 and June 7 at 2. Closes June 7. At the North Coast Repertory Theatre, 971A Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach.