Easy laughs from comic complications
GLOUCESTER — Alan Ayckbourn’s trilogy “The Norman Conquests’’ was originally written for the British playwright’s longtime theatrical home, a small theater in the seaside resort of Scarborough. So it’s a natural fit for another small theater in a seaside resort, the North Shore’s Gloucester Stage.
Gloucester opens this summer’s season with the first play in the trilogy, “Table Manners’’ — but it’s worth emphasizing that the three comedies, which each look at a disastrous family weekend from a different perspective, don’t need to be seen together in order to be enjoyed. It’s also worth noting that the enjoyment to be had is of a slight and ephemeral nature: Think of Ayckbourn as Neil Simon with a British accent, and you won’t go far wrong.
Of course, Simon is enjoying a certain renewed popularity, perhaps because people — and, even more, producers — look for tried-and-true comedies in uncertain economic times. So why not Ayckbourn? The two share a mid-20th-century-male outlook on life, an almost frighteningly fertile cleverness, and a deft hand with one-liners and plotting. If they also share a certain glibness, and a tendency to pull back whenever their characters threaten to expose the sorrows beneath their highly amusing surfaces . . . well, what the heck, it’s summer.
And if you’re going to spend an evening with Ayckbourn’s characters, you might as well do so when they’re performed by a gang of highly skilled comic actors. Eric C. Engel, Gloucester’s artistic director, has brought together just such a gang on Jenna McFarland Lord’s pitch-perfect set, a slightly fusty country-house dining room in which every angle is just a little bit askew.
First we have Sarah Newhouse as Annie, the most put-upon of the three siblings in the story: She’s stayed home to take care of their invalid mother while the other two, Reg (played by Richard Snee) and Ruth (Jennie Israel) have gone off to lead their own lives. Now Annie is taking a weekend off, so genial but clueless Reg and his take-charge, take-no-prisoners wife, Sarah (Lindsay Crouse), have arrived to handle the household duties.
Trouble breaks out, though, when Sarah discovers that Annie is going off not with Tom (Barlow Adamson), the sweet but passive veterinarian who’s been hanging around her for years without making a move, but with the titular Norman (Steven Barkhimer), who is married to none other than Ruth — yes, Annie’s own sister. Sarah intervenes, Norman gets drunk, Ruth shows up, and the usual comic complications build up and then come tumbling down.
There’s just about nothing surprising here, and it’s hard to cite a single line as a classic. But these actors all have a way with comedy, and together they manage to lift the rather predictable and slightly stale stuff of domestic-misery farce to an unexpectedly high level. Snee, in particular, works wonders with a raised eyebrow or a sudden guffaw; you could do nothing but watch him react to the shenanigans around him and have a pretty good time.
But then you’d miss Barkhimer, skipping and frolicking and fast-talking for all he’s worth while Norman — a feckless assistant librarian who nonetheless sees himself as God’s gift to every woman on Earth — by turns enrages and charms everyone around him. Well, everyone but Tom, who in Adamson’s quietly skilled performance becomes more hilarious by becoming ever more passive — until suddenly he isn’t.
And the women? Crouse is steely and scary and very funny as Sarah, though her late turn to vulnerability feels a bit forced; Newhouse makes Annie both sympathetic and ridiculous, which is no mean feat. As for Ruth, I’ll confess I would have loved to see Paula Plum (Snee’s real-life wife), who was cast but then reportedly injured herself while doing handsprings in Paris. (Ayckbourn might want to look into this for his next plot.) But Israel is tartly amusing as the career-minded wife whose husband’s romanticism only tries her patience.
As you can perhaps tell from these descriptions, there’s no transcendent exploration of human nature here. But there is a lot of sharp comic detail from an expert bunch, supported by equally sharp work from the director and designers. Maybe, for a summer seaside comedy, that’s enough.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at email@example.com.