It's sunny outside South Coast Repertory, the fountain in the courtyard is gurgling, and Mark Rucker is stuck in a really long pause. Thoughts are collecting amid the day's distractions, and the young director is sorting them out.
"Just, in general," he is asked, again, "what's the play about? Just an idea, in your own words, to help out the audience."
Rucker, dark-haired and at once both studious and hip, gazes off. "It's about the relationship between men and women. . . . You'd think I'd know this by now . . . . The reason I'm hesitating is that I don't want to make it sound like just any play you'd see . . . . It's a somewhat darkly comic take on love and marriage."
The play he's trying to describe is Alan Ayckbourn's "Intimate Exchanges," which continues on SCR's Second Stage through Feb. 28 (see accompanying review). You can't blame the 33-year-old director for stumbling: The comedy may be Ayckbourn's most complicated and would seem to challenge anyone to describe it precisely.
Ayckbourn, know for the theatricality and artifice that drapes many of his contemporary farces, such as "How the Other Half Loves," wrote "Intimate Exchanges" with a basic plot but 16 possible variations, each with a different ending. Permutations abound, and it was up to Rucker and the SCR honchos to pick the version they wanted.
They settled on one (subtitled "Events on a Hotel Terrace"), but with two endings that go off in distinctly opposite ways. Each will be offered on successive nights through the production's run.
"We didn't want to make a big deal out of publicizing that because we don't expect people (to come both nights) just to see each ending," Rucker said. "You don't have to see both to be satisfied . . . . We did the two endings because that's (the nature) of Ayckbourn; he's not into button-down endings that most Americans may be accustomed to."
Be that as it may, the general plot involves six characters, all played by veteran SCR actors Richard Doyle (most recently seen there in "Our Country's Good") and Kandis Chappell (who starred in another Ayckbourn comedy at SCR, "Woman in Mind"). "Intimate Exchanges" centers on Celia, a middle-class wife stuck in a bad marriage with Toby, the headmaster of an English prep school.
Celia and Lionel, the school's gardener, are mutually attracted and embark on a relationship of sorts. Lionel becomes more than infatuated, forcing Celia to examine the nature of her marriage. The climatic final scene, with the opposite versions, determines the fate of all three characters, Rucker explained.
"We can't decide which ending is more satisfying," he said. "Some people like one, some people like the other. I really can't pick a favorite."
Ayckbourn and his plays frequently are criticized, maybe as often as praised. He's been described as "Moliere for the middle-classes" but also as "the English Neil Simon," a clear knock. It's his glibness of style, his reach for the easy laugh, that draw the barbs, and Rucker says that's unfair.
"I have nothing bad to say about Neil Simon because I haven't been watching his work lately, but I think it's a disservice to Ayckbourn to give him that label," he said.
"I've come to respect (Ayckbourn's) specificity. He's similar to Chekhov in the way his comedies are character-driven. At his best, he takes us to a deeply poignant moment and one that also makes us laugh. Like Chekhov, he's a humanist writer."
The directing assignment, Rucker's first at SCR, is a big step for the former Newport Beach resident who now lives in Los Angeles. Rucker attended Newport Harbor High School during the mid-'70s, and he got his first taste for theater in classes taught there by Thomas Bradac, long-time GroveShakespeare director and now founder of the fledgling Shakespeare Orange County.
Rucker attended several of SCR's productions back when it was the Third Step Theatre. One he saw when he was 14 really left its mark on him--a revival of George M. Cohan's "The Tavern," starring Doyle.
"Early on in rehearsals, I didn't want to tell him because I thought it would make him feel old," Rucker said, laughing. "But he was quite amused by it. I remember being so impressed by that show and his performance. It really had (an impact) on the direction I decided to take."
Rucker eventually graduated from UCLA's drama program and headed east to Yale, where he earned his master's degree in directing. He plans to stay with the stage, although he concedes that directing television and film are possibilities.
"If I can be secure financially, I'll definitely stay with theater, because of the purity," he said. "But it's a really tough business. I know that.
"I don't really want to go into television or films, but I do have to pay my bills, and then there's this big student loan I have to worry about. You have to keep an open mind, I guess."