New York City Theater
"The Norman Conquests" (“Table Manners,” “Living Together,” “Round and Round the Garden”)
Circle in the Square (Broadway)
British theater continues its invasion of these American shores, this time with a trilogy of plays on Broadway. This particular production of “The Norman Conquests,” now at Circle in the Square, has been brought over intact from London,
These three interlocking Alan Ayckbourn plays are irresistible—at least to loyal Ayckbourn fans. It is distinctively British humor—a take on comedy that is not to every one’s taste. But for those of us who succumb to Ayckbourn, it is great fun.
The three comedies deal with one family (and one neighbor) over the course of one week-end. Playwright Ayckbourn has always taken a clever, offbeat approach, playing his own kind of chess game. Stories move back and forth in time, overlap on each other, turn upsidedown, and otherwise behave unexpectedly.
The first play of this early Ayckbourn trilogy, “Table Manners,” sets up the story. We learn that several people related by marriage are assembled for one week-end. Annie, who cares for her ailing mother, lives in the family country home. But she has planned a secret week-end getaway with her brother-in-law Norman. Of course the two cover their tryst with a made-up story. Annie’s brother Reg and his wife Sarah have come for the week-end, to mind Mother and give Annie a needed respite. In no time, the bossy prudish Sarah has pried the true story from Annie, and, when Norman appears on the scene, she demolishes him. In fact, she calls Norman’s wife Ruth and demands she make an appearance. Meanwhile, Annie’s somewhat reluctant suitor Tom hovers about the edges.
Thus the scene is set. With six distinctively quirky personalities on hand, this scene at an English country home explodes. Ayckbourn continues to fill in the story chinks in “Living Together” and wraps it up, more or less, in “Round and Round the Garden.”
Hilarious though it is, “The Norman Conquests” also has a distinctively dark underpinning. It is clear that poor Annie is exploited all-round--that her siblings take little responsibility for Mother, that Mother herself is a fraud, that Norman is selfish, that Tom is inadequate. Moreover, Ruth is aloof and removed, while Sarah is a troublemaker. Exaggerated though it is, there is so much reality that one watches the proceedings with a mixture of laughter and tears. How often does one sibling get stuck with the responsibility for an aging parent? How often does some one play the role of martyr—and play it with satisfaction? How often does one spouse manage “a bit on the side,” (as they say in “The Norman Conquests”?
In short, Ayckbourn’s mad material is anchored in real life. And, fitting like a glove, is this particular British production, imaginatively staged in the round by director Matthew Warchus and inhabited by a gifted cast of six—Amelia Bullmore, Jessica Hynes, Stephen Mangan, Ben Miles, Paul Ritter, and Amanda Root.
Seeing all three plays in one day is heavy-going indeed. But this almost-eight-hour marathon never palls, not for one moment.
-- Irene Backalenick
May 16, 2009