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Regional Reviews: New Jersey

The Garage Theatre Conquest: Ayckbourn's Table Manners

Also see Bob's reviews of Next Fall and Jericho

T.C. Tanis and Valerie Stack Dodge
Table Manners is one of the best and most popular comedies by the outstanding and outstandingly prolific British playwright Alan Ayckbourn. It is being revived by the Garage Theatre Group in a production which is quite remarkable for the richly integrated, farcical comic performances of its recruited troupe of six terrific actors. It is miraculous that Director Michael Bias has been able to achieve such smooth and hilarious physical complexity during the brief allotted rehearsal time. There is nothing guilty about the great pleasure given by the hilarious Table Manners for it is also rueful, insightful and character driven.

Table Manners is the first, funniest and most informative of Ayckbourn's 1973 trilogy which, prior to moving from Scarborough to London in 1974, acquired the overall title of The Norman Conquests. Each play of the trilogy has been designed to be complete in and of itself, so the absence at this time of the balance of the trilogy—Living Together and Round and Round the Garden—is no cause whatsoever to take pause over attending Table Manners. In fact, when I attended the trilogy during its 1975 Broadway run, I found that there was something progressively reductive about making three trips to the Morosco, and paying three times to see what was essentially one play. I'm not dismissing the balance of the trilogy. I am saying that there is no reason for not seeing Table Settings now.

The setting is the country house of a never seen, but demanding invalid woman. The invalid is in the care of her youngest child Annie, who is clearly in danger of never marrying and lives there with her. The time frame for each play is late Saturday afternoon through Monday morning. Table Manners is set in the dining room (the second play in the sitting room, and the third in the garden).

Annie's oldest sibling Reg, an affable, lazily laid back sort, and his wife Sarah, an unhappy, bossy, interfering woman who is quick to let everyone know that raising her two children qualifies her for martyrdom, have driven down to care for Reg's mother so that Annie can get away to East Grinstead (an undesirable village where no one ever vacations). Sarah has hopefully decided that Annie is going away with Tom, a doltish young local veterinarian who happily hangs out with Annie, but seems unaware that their relationship is incomplete.

To Sarah's shock, it develops that Annie is about to go off for her not first assignation with Norman, who is the husband of Annie and Reg's middle sibling Ruth. Sarah talks Annie out of going off with Norman, but cannot get it through Tom's thick skull that he might weekend away with her. Outraged by Norman and Annie's plan, Sarah tells the phlegmatic and unflappable Reg of them. She then calls Ruth and demands that she come out to the house on Sunday morning. There isn't sufficient food in the house for the reunited clan and vet Tom, only enough for Annie to prepare a hilariously parsimonious dinner that ranks high among the funniest meals ever served on a stage. Here Garage Theatre stager Michael Bias has managed to collaborate with the great Alan Ayckbourn to create joyous hilarity.

Norman is one of Ayckbourn's masterful creations. An uncouth, irresponsible, self-centered hedonist, Norman has the gift of being able to spot the vulnerability in women, and to provide assuagement and sympathy which makes them putty in his hands. In short, Ayckbourn has written, and T. C. Tanis brings to life, annoyingly self-amused, deplorable Norman who can nudge us to laugh and enable us to understand his appeal to women despite our disapproval of him. Even his wife Ruth, a high powered, no nonsense business executive who essentially supports him and is aware of his infidelity, remains susceptible to Norman's questionable raffish charm. June Mandeville is crisp and efficient in providing Ruth with the detached anger which is less about Norman's infidelity with her sister than the disruption in her routine that it has brought about.

Roland Johnson's Reg exudes a self-satisfied delight in himself, and makes being funny appear deceptively easy. Johnson is so enjoyable that it takes a while to notice what a lazy, passive aggressive cuss Reg is. As Reg wonders aloud why he ever left the peace and quietude of this house where he was raised and cosseted for the dubious pleasure of being married and raising children, at least for the moment, we share his feeling. Valerie Stack Dodge captures the humor of the ever aggrieved Sarah. We even have some sympathy for her, realizing that if Reg were more involved, she would be less overbearing.

Elizabeth Simmons nicely delineates the beginnings of the resentment which often would arise in the adult child who, having failed to escape her childhood home, provided care for an elderly parent which was unappreciated by her siblings. Such caregivers are increasingly rare today. Tom Layman is amusingly on target as the hopelessly dense Tom.

There is a combined synopsis for The Norman Conquests on Alan Ayckbourn's web site. If you see Table Matters and want to know about the trilogy's conclusion, which occurs one hour after the last scene in Table Manners, you can find it there.

Table Manners continues performances (Evenings: Thursday, Friday, Saturday 8 pm/ Matinees.: Sunday 3 pm) through November 13, 2011, at the Garage Theatre Group, Becton Theatre, on the campus of Fairleigh Dickinson University, 1000 River Road, Teaneck, New Jersey 07670. Box Office: 201-569-7710; online:

Table Manners by Alan Ayckbourn; directed by Michael Bias.

Norman..............................T.C. Tanis
Annie....................Elizabeth Simmons
Tom................................Tom Layman
Sarah..................Valerie Stack Dodge
Reg............................Roland Johnson
Ruth...........................June Mandeville

Photo: Justin Bias

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