One of the most surprising runaway hits of this Broadway season has been The Norman Conquests playing at Circle in the Square for one more week. Receiving the TONY Award for best revival of a play, this three-part farce has brought new attention to British playwright Alan Ayckbourn, whose work rarely fares as critically or popularly successful in the U.S. It has taken the genius direction of Matthew Warchus (Broadway's new it-boy) coupled with an insanely talented ensemble of actors to make this trilogy not only work, but fly off the stage and into our hearts.
The main device of the plays is that they depict the events of a family retreat over the course of a single weekend. However, each play presents a slice of life from the weekend from a different location. The first play, Table Manners occurs (obviously) in the dining room, Living Together, the second play is set in the living room, and the final play, Round and Round the Garden is self-explanatory. The plot involved three siblings, Reg, Ruth, and Annie, who are married (or betrothed) to Sarah, Norman, and Tom, respectively. As the saying goes, comedy works best in threes and Ayckbourn has mastered the form delivering three couples through three plays in three locations. And comedy doesn't get any better than this.
To summarize, Annie, the spinster sister who stays at home to care for their ailing mother has arranged a weekend away. Sarah and Reg arrive to relieve her of her household duties. However, when Sarah discovers that Annie is not planning a rendezvous with her beau, Tom, but with her brother-in-law Norman, all hell breaks loose. Norman appears in the garden waving his pajamas about by the unsuspecting Tom and Sarah immediately intervenes to keep him from further seducing Annie. After a night of sprawling, Ruth, Norman's wife, is beckoned to the house and all is revealed to all before dinner, which makes for a great kitchen-table farce. The plot may sound involved and confusing, but I guarantee there is not one moment that evades the audience's perception. The story is so masterfully crafted and so brilliantly executed that you feel not as if you are attending a performance, but attending a sordid family affair (pun intended).
The brilliance of this work lies in the author's and actors' abilities to make these characters so well known that the comedy is inherent. Annie's self-deprecative spinsterism is perfectly portrayed by Jessica Hynes which is coupled in the first scene by the busy-body, "keeping up appearances" persona of Ruth, deftly performed by Amanda Root. Annie's bother and Ruth's husband, Reg (Paul Ritter), is a light-hearted, physical jokester that you can only imagine wears lampshades on his head and enters every party with a joke (or a game created by his own device). Annie's stilted love for Tom is understandable through Ben Miles' awkwardly enamoring performance as the vet who fails to coax a cat out of a tree. Likewise, Amelia Bullmore's Ruth displays a self-confident business woman and beauty whose vanity prevents her from wearing glasses, which provides a tragic flaw and endless slapstick humour. In the end, however, it is Norman, the eccentric lover cum spouse/brother-in-law that truly wins our hearts. Stephen Mangan accomplishes the impossible by playing an unkempt mess of a person who is so encased in feelings and emotion that most of the women and at least 10% of the men in the audience cannot help but fall in love. Upon first seeing the actor in his pajamas, sporting a 5-day shadow, one wonders why anyone would be wooed by this bachanalian beast. But, but the end of Play 1 when he appears in an ill-fitting suit, 1970s tuxedo shirt, and maid's apron, you understand that Norman just wants to be loved. And every woman in the show has love to give.
What is so refreshing about this show is that it is like a well-crafted sitcom: you inherently know these characters and identify with both their plight to make a loveless marriage work as well as their desire for spontaneity and excitement. Ayckbourn is known for writing satirical love farces that plunder the emotions of contemporary relationships and marriage (not that the two are mutually exclusive or vice versa). What is fascinating is how this ensemble has been able to create a motley cast of characters without a single ounce of tongue-in-cheekness or self-aware commentary on the humour or tragic missteps of their characters. Any less-than-skilled group of actors couldn't help but pass judgement on these characters. But in the hands of this talented cast, the characters actions, motivations, and repercussions are performed without an ounce of self-doubt or recrimination. The judgment, in the end, is left entirely to the audience and the sentence they pronounce is gut-wrenching laughter from start to finish.