Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Triple Play

The Norman Conquests
A comedy trilogy written by Alan Ayckbourn
Directed by Matthew Warchus
Starring Amelia Bullmore, Jessica Hynes, Stephen Mangan, Ben Miles, Paul Ritter, Amanda Root

Performances from April 7-July 25, 2009
Circle in the Square Theater
235 West 50th Street

Stephen Mangan in
The Norman Conquests

(credit: Joan Marcus)
The gimmicks in Alan Ayckbourn's plays are so fiendishly clever that it's easy to lose sight if what a remarkably original artist he actually is. The three plays that make up his The Norman Conquests—now being superbly revived in the edifying production by Matthew Warchus that won raves at the Old Vic in London last fall—follow the usual Ayckbourn path of experimenting with time and space, as it simultaneously presents an all-too-human comedy about the blinders that each of us wears that cause us to lose sight—however briefly—of our most important relationships. As in Ayckbourn's best plays, belly laughs and silent comprehension chase each other through the mazes that he puts his characters through. At the end, we (and they) may emerge better but are infinitely wiser, learning much about the people onstage and our own lives.

The Norman Conquests follows three couples during one weekend at a house in the English countryside. Annie takes care of her (unseen) mother, bedridden upstairs, while her sometime beau, the veterinarian Tom, often stops by to look after the family's cantankerous (and unseen) cat. Arriving to take care of the house for the weekend so Annie can take off for a couple of days' rest are her older brother Reg and his wife Sarah, and rounding out the sextet are ladies' man Norman, who shows up uninvited, and his wife Ruth (Annie and Reg's sister) who arrives after Sarah informs her of Norman’s disruptive drunkenness.

It's a typical Ayckbourn set-up: couples in the throes of variously disintegrating relationships are thrown together at close quarters and forced to fend for themselves. The conceit is that each of the plays—Table Manners, Living Together and Round and Round the Garden—takes place in a specific locale (the dining room, the sitting room and the garden), more or less coinciding with the action in the other plays. So if a character walks out of the dining room in Table Manners to check on a couple in the sitting room, when you watch Living Together, you'll see said character enter the sitting room to check out said couple. Through all three plays, the audience gradually pieces together the characters’ actions and motivations, and we find that Norman was supposed to go away with Annie, but Sarah's butting in helped cow Annie into canceling it. That cancellation is the motor that drives the sundry recriminations and reconciliations that unfold during this weekend, a masterly feat of predigitation by Ayckbourn, who juggles so many balls simultaneously that you marvel at his wizardry, which begins riotously then turns poignant, as so many Ayckbourn plays do.

Drily describing the superficial gimmick of The Norman Conquests does a disservice to Ayckbourn’s achievement: appreciating its ingenuity on paper pales next to sitting in the theater and reveling in his tragicomic brilliance. Sure, Ayckbourn dazzles with his feats of theatrical hocus-pocus over the course of three full-length, interlocking plays. But it's not until you watch his actors speak his dialogue and you laugh at and (more often) along with these characters, even shedding a tear in sympathy, that you realize that Ayckbourn is a true humanist and one of our great living playwrights.

As good as he is at creating comic misadventures, Ayckbourn is even better with dialogue that's simultaneously funny, sad and true. Reg muses about marrying Sarah: “Mother always says the same thing—what did you go and marry her for? Biggest mistake of your life. You’ll live to regret it. Trouble is, I can never think of a convincing answer.” Or Ruth telling her wandering husband: “You are deceitful, odious, conceited, self-centered, selfish, inconsiderate and shallow.” To which Norman replies: “I am not shallow!” Or Annie trying to explain to Norman how difficult their decision was to arrange an affair: “Far better we two just go away quietly to a little hotel somewhere, get it all off our chests—out of our system—God, I’m making it sound like a laxative.”

Being presented in the round at the Circle in the Square Theater, Matthew Warchus’ perfect production has been imported whole cloth from London: Rob Howell’s sets and costumes and David Howe’s lighting are given to masterly understatement. And what acting! Stephen Mangan's crudely charming Norman, Amelia Bullmore's hilariously sensible Ruth, Jessica Hynes’ heartbreakingly frowsy Annie, Ben Miles’ wonderfully slow-witted Tom, Paul Ritter's wittily capable Reg and Amanda Root's deliciously meddlesome Sarah are unbeatable singly and together. They knock Ayckbourn's one-liners out of the park and paint his penetrating dialogue with so many vivid colors that you'll find that, after spending hours with them through all three plays (preferably on the same day), you know them, get irritated by them, and even love them like they’re family.

For that last, most remarkable sleight of hand, thank The Norman Conquests’ eminent creator, Alan Ayckbourn.

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