Oh That Norman

The Norman Conquests isn’t your standard trilogy. The plays in Alan Ayckbourn’s comedic 1973 triptych don’t happen one after another but all at more or less the same time with the same characters in different areas of the same house: Round and Round the Garden in the garden, Table Manners in the dining room, and Living Together in the living room. Ackbourn crafted them in a rotating fashion, writing the first scene of the first play, then the first scene of the second play, then the first scene of the third, before proceeding to the second scene of the first play, and round and round between the three plays until they were all finished.  That’s more or less how the action plays out, too.  Some events in any two plays are clearly happening simultaneously, while other scenes fill in the gaps of time the other plays skip over. The idea is that you can see them in any order, and that’s more or less true.  (I wouldn’t recommend starting off with Living Together, but more on that later.)

Josiah Polhemus, Kendra Lee Oberhauser, Mick Mize and Zehra Berkman. Photo by Robin Phillips.

American Conservatory Theater performed just one of the plays this May, Round and Round the Garden. That one might seem like the play most likely to stand on its own, because it contains both the very beginning and the very end of the cycle. But as ACT’s somewhat lackluster production demonstrated, it doesn’t really. It skips over so much that you often wonder how the heck you got from point B at the end of one scene to point G at the beginning of the next scene, and you have to see at least one of the other plays to fill in the blanks to any satisfaction. Also enough either happens or is discussed in each of the plays that you might get an entirely mistaken idea of what exactly is going on in that house if you only see one of them. Taken all together, the Norman plays are a lot of fun as an unusually lengthy piece of light entertainment, but any one of the plays in isolation falls short in terms of character development and plot arc, those little things on which we usually judge a play.

Having performed staged readings of all three plays this January to overwhelming audience response, Shotgun Players opted to stage all three parts in repertory at their own Ashby Stage while their outdoor summer show—Jon Tracy’s Iliad adaptation The Salt Plays, Part One: In the Wound—plays in John Hinkel Park. (Berkeley Rep also performed the Norman trilogy in rep way back in 1981.) It’s not part of the regular Shotgun season so much as a little extra treat for the theater’s audience.

Before we go any further, I should probably explain that The Norman Conquests doesn’t have anything to do with William the Conqueror and 1066 and all that. It’s a very ’70s sex comedy about a guy named Norman who keeps trying to seduce both his sister-in-law and his brother-in-law’s wife. (How far he gets with that is one of the things that seeing only part of the trilogy might mislead you about.) Norman has secretly arranged to run off with his wife’s sister Annie for a “dirty weekend,” but even though they’d arranged to meet in town to avoid suspicion, he can’t resist coming round to Annie’s house early. There he bumps into his brother-in-law Reg and his wife Sarah, who have come to look after the place (and Reg and Annie’s invalid mother, whom we never see) while Annie’s off on her mysterious vacation. Sarah almost immediately gets the truth out of Annie and nips the adulterous getaway in the bud, keeping everyone in the house together over the weekend. “Everyone” also includes Annie’s thick headed and awkward neighbor Tom, who would probably be her boyfriend by now if he could ever be bothered to make a move. Norman’s wife Ruth eventually, perhaps inevitably, joins the party as well.

With a different director for each of the plays, Shotgun brings out the humor of the trilogy beautifully overall, and the cast handles the English accents reasonably well. Zehra Berkman is quite touching as Annie, and unassuming type who stays home and looks after mother.  Berkman gives a strong sense of both her easygoing passivity and her frustration at being sidelined by life and the people around her (especially Tom), and her giggle is infectious. Although chirpy when she’s being pleasant, Kendra Lee Oberhauser’s fussy Sarah keeps her high-strung, discontented side always close to the surface. Mick Mize is priceless as Reg, a chatty, breezy type who in his own way is almost as clueless as Tom. The best part is that he imagines himself to be exceedingly clever, savoring his own jokes with a broad grin and a wink.

Josiah Polhemus seems at first to be a slow starter as Tom, appropriately enough, but his labored delivery and super-long pauses pay off beautifully in comic timing. A veterinarian who uses Annie’s perpetually sick cat as a pretext for always hanging around, Tom isn’t dim so much as extremely slow on the uptake. It takes him an inordinately long time to process what people are trying to tell him, often to no avail. Sarah Mitchell makes a marvelous Ruth, with a plaintive nasal voice and perpetually bored expression, as if everything around her is insufferably tiresome, and her comic delivery is superb.

The trouble is Richard Reinholdt’s insufferable Norman, always grinning as if posing for a picture and often waving his hands around like a stage magician. He’s amusing enough when Norman’s off-balance and off his game, as in his scenes with Ruth, but when he’s in sly scamp mode or wailing drunkenly about how nobody loves him—which is most of the time—he’s pretty hard to take. Part of that is just Norman, a disheveled lout whose main appeal lies in the notion that attention can be flattering no matter who it’s coming from, but surely there should be more reason for the audience to put up with him.

Nina Ball’s sets surely reflect the tastes of the unseen mother more than her swinging ’70s offspring, with kitschy-quaint décor in shades of brown and yellow, lots of motel-style paintings on the walls, and a sad, neglected garden out back. Valera Coble’s summery costumes are heavy on oranges and browns that fit well with both the set and the period setting.

Table Manners is the funniest of the lot and would be a fine way to start a marathon viewing, as I did last weekend when all three were finally up and running. (Table Manners started August 6, Living Together August 13, and Round and Round on August 20.) They say the kitchen is where the life of a household is, and the dining room table is the next best thing. Sharply directed by Joy Carlin, the play catches the characters while eating, setting the table or making tea, and often while tempers are fraying. Norman himself doesn’t appear until 40 minutes into the 130-minute play, which doesn’t hurt. By the time he does show up for breakfast nobody’s talking to him, for reasons you’d have to see the other plays to discover, so he just talks and talks and talks and talks, infatuated with the sound of his own voice, as everyone else tries to ignore him. It’s an irritating introduction to the character, but that’s just Norman. That does lead into a terrific scene between him and Ruth, in which he tries to get her goat by telling her everything and she can’t be bothered with his tomfoolery.

Living Together is the most in-betweeny and fragmentary play in the trilogy, and the one that would make the least sense if you haven’t already seen one or both of the others. It’s also the most expendable if you only have time for two, as it doesn’t move the plot forward all that much. It starts after the other two plays are already underway and Norman is sulking and getting drunk on his mother-in-law’s homebrewed dandelion wine (better that than the carrot wine, which is shown in Table Manners to pack a wallop of an aftertaste). Molly Aaronson-Gelb’s production keeps the pace lively, but that doesn’t keep it from feeling like filler.  Reg is trying to get people to play his ridiculously complicated homemade board game, everyone makes fun of Tom, and a few characters have it out, but not much comes of it.  It would be a shame to miss it, though, because it contains a scene between Norman and Ruth that gives a sense of why they’re married in the first place, and also offers some of Tom’s most hilarious moments.

Although it has some hysterical parts, Round and Round the Garden is a bit slower-paced and story-centered than the others, which makes it a decent way to wind down from the hijinks of the rest. Mina Morita gives it a pleasingly brisk staging, although the pace flags considerably in a tête-à-tête between Norman and Sarah.  The best bit is an incident scarcely mentioned in the other plays, in which Ruth’s frustrating attempts to rouse Tom into expressing his interest in Annie makes him think that Ruth is coming on strong to him. Saving its ending for last isn’t a big deal, mind you, because even though it shows what happened right after the other two ended, the upshot is more or less the same.  That’s the thing about Norman. He’ll never change.

The Norman Conquests
Through September 12
Ashby Stage
1901 Ashby Ave.
Berkeley, CA

Table Manners: Show #85 of 2010, attended August 21.

Living Together: Show #87 of 2010, attended August 22.

Round and Round the Garden: Show #88 of 2010, attended August 22.

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