Ayckbourn's conceit in The Norman Conquests is that the chaotic action in the three plays is occurring simultaneously in different parts of the house and the audience, as well as the characters, is in the dark as to what may be going on outside of the present scene. Of course, Living Together is informed by the action in Table Manners and vice versa, but each solidly stands on its own as an entertainment or, as my theatre companion aptly stated, "a romp through infidelity." When asked if he will stage the final chapter of the trilogy (Round and Round the Garden) next year, Engel smiles and slyly suggests that the box office numbers will decide.
Steven Barkhimer is at the top of his game as the puckish Norman. As much as he commanded more than his fair share of attention in last year's offering, Living Together shines a brighterand harsherlight on Norman's character. In Table Manners, he was part recalcitrant child and part puppy dog, eager to lap up whatever scraps of affection were tossed his way, and garnered laughs and sympathy from the audience despite his antics. Relocating the setting from the dining room to the sitting room allows greater latitude for Norman's manipulative and amorous intentions. Even as we become privy to more of his character's odious methods, Barkhimer skillfully walks a fine line that lets us see Norman as altogether human, not merely despicable, and uses physical humor and myriad facial expressions to great advantage.
Norman's raison d'Ítre is to charm the ladies, and each of the three women has a complicated relationship with him. To varying extent, they are all vulnerable to his charms, but Ayckbourn gives them different shadings this time around to indicate, perhaps, that they are smarter in the sitting room than they were in the dining room. Lindsay Crouse's Sarah is less of a stick in the mud, although she is still quite controlling. Her tiff with Sarah Newhouse's Annie is one of the highlights of the second act. Newhouse settles into her role and comfortable old clothes with equal ease. Jennie Israel rounds out Norman's harem as his frustrated, self-involved wife Ruth, unable to decide if she's better off with him or without him.
Richard Snee is his reliable self as Reg, Sarah's husband who prefers to be told what to do. Although Reg is often relegated to the role of observer of the crazy goings-on, Snee has a couple of opportunities to get lively and he makes the most of them, including an amazing simulation of the movements of chess pieces. Bearing a strong resemblance to Tom Smothers adds to Barlow Adamson's portrayal of Tom, Annie's slow-on-the-uptake suitor, who makes it appear that it hurts for him to think too hard. Individually and collectively, the actors are masters of comic timing and Engel adapts to the slower pace of Living Together, a summer stroll by comparison to the frenetic Table Manners.
Jenna McFarland Lord's design for the sitting room could be described as shabby chic, with occasional tables, mismatched chairs and numerous paintings askew on the walls that are in need of a good cleaning. Lighting by Russ Swift illuminates all of the many seating areas, as well as the hallways leading offstage. Costumes by Gail Buckley offer continuity from last year's production, and yes, the red tuxedo is back, too!
Ayckbourn is a prolific writer, having written 74 full length plays. However, he had written only about a dozen plays prior to 1973 when he penned The Norman Conquests in a manner he describes as "crosswise"that is, starting with scene one of one play, moving on to write scene one of each of the other two plays, then doing the same round robin with each subsequent scene throughout. Add to that the smart dialogue, the delineation of the characters, and the consistent humor, and it's pretty amazing, when you think about it. However, I suggest that you don't think about it; I suggest letting the Gloucester Stage Company do all the work while you sit back and laugh and become one of Norman's conquests.
Living Together, performances through June 26 at Gloucester Stage Company; Box Office 978-281-4433 or www.gloucesterstage.org. Written by Alan Ayckbourn, Directed by Eric C. Engel; Set Design, Jenna McFarland Lord; Costume Design, Gail Buckley; Lighting Design, Russ Swift; Production Stage Manager, Marsha Smith
Cast: Barlow Adamson: Tom; Steven Barkhimer: Norman; Lindsay Crouse: Sarah; Jennie Israel: Ruth; Sarah Newhouse: Annie; Richard Snee: Reg