April 25, 2009

Total Surrender to "The Norman Conquests"

When my buddy Bill first invited me to go to the all-day marathon of The Norman Conquests, I said no thanks. Unlike so many theater lovers, I’ve never been that into Alan Ayckbourn. And I worried about what would happen if I hated the first of the three separate plays that compose the marathon. I know well the sinking feeling that can come just a few minutes into a play when you realize that you’re stuck with a loser for the next two hours or more. So how would I feel if I thought I was going to be stuck for the next seven?

Still, it did seem like one of those-once-in-a-lifetime experiences, so I emailed Bill and told him I'd changed my mind. And thank goodness I did. Because after just the first 10 minutes of The Norman Conquests, I felt terrific. And my feelings got better and better as the day wore on. So this entry is going to be slightly longer than usual because I want to tell you all about it.

The Normal Conquests tells the Chekhov-like story of friends and relatives who come together for a weekend in the country. In this case, they are Annie, a thirtysomething spinster who is caring for her ailing gorgon of a mother (whom we never see,) the neighborhood vet Tom, who is more or less courting Annie; her brother Reg and his prissy wife Sarah; and Annie and Reg’s sister Ruth and her randy husband Norman, whose conquests—or attempts at them—the plays detail.

The famously prolific Ayckbourn (he’s written over 70 plays) likes to construct interlocking plays that work—and can be viewed—separately but create a more rewarding experience when seen in tandem. (Click here to read a Michael Riedel interview with the playwright.) This time out, each play takes place in a different part of the house but at roughly the same time. So, for example, when we see a character walk out of the dining room to look for something in one play, we pick up his journey—and some belly laughs—as we watch him find it in another.

It must be a great challenge for the actors to keep it all straight. But each of the six members in the Norman cast, all of whom originated their roles in London but none of whom I’d ever seen before, is brilliant. And together, they may be the best ensemble I’ve ever seen. Ayckbourn gives them plenty of funny things to play and witty lines to say and a moment for each to shine. And Matthew Warchus, who directed last year’s Boeing-Boeing and this season’s God of Carnage, confirms his position as theater’s reigning king of comedy with pitch-perfect staging. In fact, he had me before any of the characters even said hello.

One of the things I lament about going to the theater these days is how seldom you get to see a curtain rise. Instead, most of the time you walk into a theater and the set is sitting right there staring out at you. But Warchus and his equally clever set designer Rob Howell have devised the most charmingly appropriate curtain I’ve ever seen—I won’t spoil the surprise of it for you, except to say it’s a particularly neat feat since the plays are presented in the round.

A funny insert in the Playbill insists that it doesn’t matter which of the three plays you see first. But here’s the order in which they ran at the marathon Bill and I attended: Table Manners, Living Together, and Round and Round the Garden. Bill later told me that a friend asked him which of the three should be seen if you can see only one. (Special marathon tickets are priced at $255, about $80 less than if you see the plays on separate nights, but that could still eat up your show budget if you’re an occasional theatergoer.) I said Table Manners because it’s so thoroughly hilarious. Bill chose Round and Round the Garden because he thinks it provides the best overview of the entire trilogy.

And yet, my favorite is probably Living Together. It’s slightly less funny than the other two, but it cuts deeper, revealing the real pain beneath what at first glance seem to be superficial lives. Norman and his relatives become less caricatures and more human. Part of the pleasure of seeing the shows one after the other in the marathon is the chance to build a relationship with these characters, almost in the way we develop one with people we meet and then get to know—and for better or worse—accept as time goes on.

But another part of the joy of the marathon was the event itself. I’d never spent an entire day in the theater before. (Click here to read the New York Post’s suggestions for how to survive the all-day experience, which is schedule every Saturday; single performances of each of the individual plays alternate during the week). Each play has a 20 minute intermission and because the audience at the performance Bill and I attended was filled with Tony nominators, the major theater critics and other Broadway insiders, including the actors Julie White, Mary Stuart Masterson and Jeremy Davidson, the breaks had the air of a cocktail party or family reunion with everyone milling about in the downstairs lobby at Circle in the Square, catching up with old friends, greeting new acquaintances and gushing about the plays until the ushers shooed us back to our seats.

Our first performance was supposed to begin at 11:30 but it started about 15 minutes late and ran until just before 2. Several restaurants in the area are offering deals for marathoners but Bill and I just ducked across the street to Thalia for its usual bargain brunch special. We spotted one of the actors there, apparently grabbing a quick bite with friends.

The 3 pm installment also started late. Because the plays are being presented in the round, the folks at the box office or on Telecharge will tell you it doesn’t matter where you sit but, if you can, get an even-numbered seat for Living Together. It ended minutes before 6, allowing us just enough time to run down the street to meet our friend and my fellow blogger Steve on Broadway for dinner at Vice Versa and then return for the 8 pm finale, which let out around 10:30.

I left feeling tired (partly from laughing so hard) but exhilarated (by having seen such superb theater). Bill loved it so much that he says he’s ready to do the whole seven and a half hours all over again.


Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Thanks to your erudite review and in-person endorsement, I am now planning to devote an entire Saturday in May to seeing this epic production. See you again for dinner soon!

Kevin Daly said...

Hands down the best experience I've had this season. I, too, want to do another marathon!