It is the day of the annual garden fete, party time. As Garden begins, Joanna hides in overgrown shrubs on one end of the long, lush garden, fearful her tryst with Teddy Platt will be discovered. House opens as Trish Platt prepares lunch in her plush dining room and pretends her philandering husband does not exist.

House and Garden, plays Alan Ayckbourn named for their settings, opened in February at the two new Goodman theatres in Chicago. Scenic designer Linda Buchanan says the artistic team treated these settings as metaphors for domestic life and natural passion respectively. While Joanna goes mad in public, Trish tries to keep up appearances. In House, floral-patterned upholstery, flower-filled vases, and a bas-relief of Pan on the false proscenium reference nature in a formal way, while Garden's terrain is slightly disorganized.

The characters aren't in synch, but the plays are, so much so that it may be a mistake to bill them separately. The comedy transpires over four parts of the same day, in attached areas of a country estate, and follows three couples in marital crises. A note in each program advises that part of the fun is knowing the other play is being performed simultaneously, with 21 actors who do the same roles in both rushing between the theatres.

Garden is set in a 300 — seat flexible space, used in runway formation. On one end, an ivy-covered stone wall and stone steps to the house close off the space. Spectators sit on three sides and on three tiers. Informal? You bet. The night I attended, two men in the front row had their feet on the stage until an usher asked them to keep off the grass. House, in contrast, is formal, staged in an 850 — seat proscenium house. Trish, an interior decorator, met her husband when she came to his house to decorate it — and what a job she did! Buchanan furnished the Georgian-style house, built in 1753 and restored in 1850, eclectically, as Trish would have done, integrating period antiques with some Victorian chairs and more modern pieces.

Spectators who see both plays view simultaneous events in two locales, while characters experience life from one place. “Even though we approached them as separate plays, they did occur in the same geographical region,” lighting designer James Ingalls says. “The spaces were different and the set designs were different, but the color and angle [of the sun at any given part of the day] were similar.” Ingalls, however, didn't insist on academic accuracy.

Ayckbourn's conceit is clever, but viewed as separate works, neither House nor Garden is adequate, with missing links between some moments, characters who don't quite belong in one or the other, and action that is motivated in a different script. A fountain, for instance, doesn't work through much of Garden, symbolizing a marriage that isn't working in House. “In terms of the characters and continuity of the story, I had to think of it as one play,” says costume designer Mara Blumenfeld. Buchanan began with two files for early sketches but these quickly merged into one.

Setting the story in two theatres, however, increases the sense of reality. In one theatre, the house and garden would have to be more or less the same shape, and each set would have been smaller to accommodate another in the wings. “When you have scene changes, you have to compromise on how much reality you can have,” Buchanan reflects. “For each set, you have a gesture.” Not so here, where Buchanan created a luxurious living room, and through a large arch, part of an opulent dining room. Paintings on the walls, recessed bookshelves full of antique vases and bric-a-brac, exquisite molding even on the ceiling, and rugs fill out the rooms, themselves uniquely shaped with curves and angles and backed by high arched windows. A glass door opens to the hedge-lined balcony that overlooks the garden.

The prop and scene shops worked full throttle. Usually shows open on a staggered schedule, but this time, building and teching occurred simultaneously — and for new theatres. Properties master Alice Maguire found hedges in stock from a production of Griller, and she cut them to fit the House terrace. She bought ivy and roses for Garden, and artisan Angela Guadagnini built foliage by extending long branches into Styrofoam. Maguire found a research-inspired sofa, but it cost $6,000. Her assistant pretended to be interested in purchasing it, and managed to get a tear sheet with specs that proved useful when the shop adapted a couch frame. Off-white walls inspired the first fabric choices that were supplemented by pinks and reds Buchanan wanted. Maguire took Buchanan shopping, and the designer selected the sofa fabric, a floral chintz green khaki that was hard to match. Prop people scouted the city, finding some 100 fabric swatches that might do for the chairs. The shop rebuilt and reupholstered some furniture from stock, and borrowed some from other theatres, including the Court and the Milwaukee Rep, which loaned a dining room table once used for Arcadia. Goodman audiences had seen the dining room chandelier in The Rover and a period painting in Pal Joey. Maguire visited auctions and warehouse sales, and says she fought a woman for a rug that sold for $500, about a fifth of what it was worth.

Buchanan, first to design in the smaller theatre, found the sightlines difficult in the runway configuration. Each time she thought she had found a safe place to put a large piece of scenery, she discovered it was less than ideal. Director Robert Falls finally redid some blocking so those sitting above the big shrub would be able to see all the action. Sometimes they saw too much. “Some people are really high and some are low and they wrap around,” says the designer, who kept adding ivy to mask assorted spaces. Lighting also posed challenges. “I wanted to hang branches from the catwalk to get a feeling of being under the trees,” says Buchanan, adding that she had to do some pruning to let the lighting through. Ingalls says the units hanging on the front of the balcony were a little high for audience sightlines at first, so a new rail was made for these positions, a permanent improvement for the new theatre.

House was to feature a complete beamed ceiling, but Buchanan settled for an abstracted ceiling medallion to accommodate lighting. Ingalls and Buchanan discussed what would show through windows and the sky-hedge arrangement. “The sky, the cyc, and translucency follow the curved window wall,” explains Ingalls, who used a translucency and bounce, lighting the translucency from the front and above, and the bounce from above and below.

A thunderstorm relied on sound and light. Ingalls and sound designer Richard Woodbury timed the storm, so lightning would be heard after it was seen, but without making the lapse realistically long. Three claps of thunder were heard in House at precisely the same point in the action that they were heard in Garden. Through the house windows, the sky slowly changed, showing the approach of the storm that changed the action in Garden. Ingalls says the pair added storm cues in House to intensify a moment when a sadistic child molester rejects the Platts' teenage daughter; in Garden another set of cues helped fill a long exit.

Woodbury, who composed framing and transitional music, created an outdoor environment with birds and a dog that runs about the garden but is never seen, and needs not only to be heard but to be heard in motion. When a character calls someone's name in Garden, we hear the voice as a background sound in House. “We tried to achieve symmetry between the two shows,” says Woodbury, who opened each show with an identical music cue.

Woodbury's score, British hunt music with a contemporary edge, relied on French horns, trumpets, and strings. He says the goal was to be playful while maintaining a sense of old Britain. “The plays are comedies with an undercurrent of melancholy,” he says, noting that he tried to underline both the discordant romantic relationships and the humor. Blumenfeld shopped for most of the costumes for the realistic plays, composing a palette to suit not just one space but two. When characters wore the same garment in both, her selection depended on “which world” the character would inhabit most of the time.

She dressed Trish in soft pastels, subdued and refined, in contrast both to her own tough character and to the other women in the play — Pearl, a slut who first appears in a hot pink stretch velvet top and skintight shiny purple pants adorned with a rhinestone belt, and Joanna, the village bohemian, in eccentric garments, patterned and lively.

Blumenfeld built some of the more unusual outfits, including what she calls Joanna's “suicide dress,” worn when she throws herself in front of a moving lawn mower, children's outfits for a Maypole dance scene and for a masquerade contest, and a Morris Dancing costume, her favorite. “There was something so sweet and sad,” she says of the cuckold dressed in bells and ribbons and giving himself to the dance. Since each character spends most of the time in one play and makes brief entrances in the other, at least half the time “you get one shot to define who the character is and how.” Costume changes occurred in the wings of each theatre, not when actors were in transit.

“It was so fun to get to be one of the first designers to play in the spaces,” says Blumenfeld, who worked while the costume shop unpacked. A former shop assistant, she knew where everything was in the old space. “I would pull stuff from storage. This time, I had to ask, ‘Where are we keeping the shoes?’” Having the shop on the same level as the dressing rooms more than made up for any inconvenience.

Techs went more smoothly than anyone anticipated, even though there were special issues. Ingalls, who had approached the shows separately in order to light different sets in different theatres, suddenly had to deal with them together. He focused Garden one day, House the next, then Falls teched each play by itself for 2 three — day stretches. “Then we came back and started putting them together,” says Ingalls. Since they couldn't be in both theatres at once, Falls and Ingalls had to decide what to watch when. They watched one show together, than the other, while their assistants watched what they weren't seeing. “Then it got to the point where I would watch a little of each and go back and forth.” After performances, a hoopla toss game, a book-sale table, and decorative balloons and flags from the second — act Garden set are moved into the lobby and spectators are invited to join the party. “It's a wonderful way to celebrate the opening of two spaces,” Ingalls reflects, “an actual house party.”