Friday, April 24, 2009

The Norman Conquests

After sitting through Table Manners, one play of of The Norman Conquests trilogy which opened last night at Circle in the Square, I canceled my tickets for the other two, Living Together and Round and Round the Garden. Two and a half hours with those miserable people was more than enough.

Each play of Alan Ayckbourn's 1973 comedy is written to be complete on its own or seen in any order, which should work well if the one I saw is indicative. It never really goes anywhere, just around in circles. The exit in one play becomes the entrance in another.

Directed by Matthew Warchus, The Norman Conquests comes to New York following a successful run last year at The Old Vic in London, which also was directed by Warchus and featured the current cast, Amelia Bullmore (Ruth), Jessica Hynes (Annie), Stephen Mangan (Norman), Ben Miles (Tom), Paul Ritter (Reg) and Amanda Root (Sarah).

The plays take place during a summer weekend in an English country house where family members insult one another, throw food, drink too much, cheat on their spouses and generally behave badly. The Norman of the title is an assistant librarian who calls himself “a giggalo trapped in a cornstalk” who says he wants three women a day. With his mangy hair, beard and blue print pajamas he doesn’t look like someone who could get even one, but he manages to have a wife, be having a fling with her sister and is seducing another sister-in-law.

Ayckbourn (in photo) is a popular -- and prolific -- playwright in England. Among his 70 full-length plays are Absurd Person Singular, Bedroom Farce, Just Between Ourselves, A Chorus of Disapproval, Woman in Mind and House & Garden.

The friend who went with me to Table Manners, Carolyn Hearn, is British. At intermission she was unimpressed, but when the show was over she said she thought it was funny. When I pressed her about that, she said the family dynamics, the drinking of terrible homemade wine and eating of cold toast were very British. This American didn’t find that funny, although I did think two scenes were -- one has the family playing a sort of musical chairs in an attempt to please one controling sister-in-law who has specific ideas about place settings and one in which the hostess is trying to stretch her limited stew -- made by opening every can in the kitchen and tossing the contents together in a saucepan -- and she ends up taking a bowl away from someone who had already begun to eat and shifting part of his portion into another bowl. Other than that, though, unless you like to hear people quarrel, drink homemade wine and eat cold toast, you might want to skip this show.

All three plays will be presented consecutively on Saturdays (as was the case in London) at 11 AM, 3 PM and 8 PM. The limited engagement plays to July 26. For more information, including the performance schedule, visit Tickets are available through Telecharge at (212) 239-6200, online at and at the Circle in the Square box office, 235 W. 50th St.

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