One weekend, two views

The Norman Conquests

Table Manners and Living Together
By Alan Ayckbourn
Directed by Paula D'Alessandris
The Pantheon Theatre
303 West 42 St., 2nd floor (352-4413)
Non-union production (closes Feb. 24)
Review by David Mackler

Alan Ayckbourn has been called a British Neil Simon, but that's not fair to either Sir Alan or his talent. His 1974 The Norman Conquests, a set of three plays, is one story played out in three different areas of one house. It's ingeniously put together, and the experience of one play is enriched when another is seen. That the ActorsLoftTheatreCo. would attempt it at all shows spunk, even though they went only two-thirds of the way by presenting Table Manners and Living Together in rep.

The plot involves Norman (Michael Johnson), a rather unprepossessing librarian, who has the remarkable ability to tap into the neediness of the women around him and make them feel wanted and appreciated. That his targets over the course of the plays are his wife's sister, Annie (Rebecca Roe); his brother's wife, Sarah (Mary Fassino); and his own wife (Jeremy Peterson) is somewhat discomforting, but since much of the humor is so, well, British, perhaps that's best left for Freud to thrash out with Prince Charles.

But the biggest hook of these plays was also something of a drawback - while both Table and Living were fairly amusing, many comic bits fell into place only after seeing both. Conversations frequently allude to something that has happened in another part of the house, and while Ayckbourn usually manages to lead each play where it needs to go, there was oftentimes a feeling of something missing. When the device worked it was priceless - for example in Table Manners Reg (Robert Marc Resnick) is ordered to go to the living room to interrupt a tete-a-tete. He returns, incongruously, with a garbage pail. The joke is topped in Living Together when he interrupts an increasingly warm conversation between Annie and Norman as he walks into the living room, looks around helplessly, grabs a garbage pail, and leaves.

But conversely, when Annie's putative boyfriend Tom (Dan Remmes) comes into the dining room and mentions Norman's being out in the garden waving his pajamas around, the audience is left dangling, because "Round and Round the Garden" wasn't on the program. Sure, Norman shows up in pajamas in Living Together, but the comic connection isn't really made.

In a perfect production much of that might not matter, but the direction tended to be sluggish, and the pacing often made what should have been light and farcical into something strained and indistinct. There was also some unfortunate staging - why put a vase of tall flowers on the dining room table, and then put an actor behind it? Might there have been a better way of staging a scene with six people around that same table without having the largest actor (who also had the most lines) downstage?

What helped immeasurably was that some of the acting was stellar, even if that varied between the two plays. Top acting honors must be awarded to Jeremy Peterson as Ruth, who was real and warm in the midst of mayhem, who made Ruth's marriage to Norman (with all his shortcomings) seem actually possible, whose laugh was real and genuine even as her own shortcomings made her a figure of fun like all the rest. A plain and drab character like Annie could easily be, well, plain and drab, but Rebecca Roe was funny even as she made it believable that Annie would have had a liaison with Norman (even her sobs were funny as she confessed to Ruth). As their downtrodden and occasionally oblivious brother Reg, Robert Marc Resnick was a goofball, but never at the expense of the play and never over the top. (If he was better in Table Manners than Living Together, it may well have been because the former was a better play.) Dan Remmes had the difficult job of keeping the rather simple Tom from becoming a joke, but he succeeded admirably. As Norman, Michael Johnson wasn't quite the lady-killer the script made him out to be, yet that very improbability fit the improbability of the whole setup. But as Sarah, Mary Fassino had an odd upper-style accent and a haughty exterior but not much else, and as a result all her laugh lines fell flat.

The costumes, designed by Rebecca Roe, were completely true to the time period and to the characters - Annie's drab jumper, Tom's disheveled look, Ruth in sensibly stylish business clothes, Reg's '70s lapels, Norman's pajamas with red socks, Sarah smartly dressed in garish '70s colors, complete with pearls. Set design (by Tom Harlan) seemed somewhat constrained by the requirements of mounting two plays, but the English country wallpaper was just to the right side of bad taste. Mikki Baloy's lighting was simple and unobtrusive, but needed fine tuning to correct an improbable dark spot leading off stage, where a hallway would likely have had illumination.

These plays were resolutely old-fashioned even in the '70s - lots of talking (albeit amusingly) about rather farcical situations, and taking it all very seriously, on its own terms. Ultimately, though, it's a playwright's trick, and the achievement, such as it is, belongs to Ayckbourn. But it would require a smoother production to get the full effect from Norman, his wife, and his in-laws.

Box Score:

Writing: 1
Directing: 1
Acting: 1
Set: 1
Costumes: 2
Lighting/Sound: 1

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Copyright 2002 David Mackler