Sunday, May 3, 2009

New York postcard No. 5: A long day's journey into ensemble comedy

Stephen Mangan in The Norman Conquests.

By Hap Erstein

NEW YORK -- Most of the peak theatergoing experiences of my life have been all-day marathon events, like Angels in America (in its Los Angeles tryout), the Royal Shakespeare Company's Nicholas Nickleby and Tom Stoppard's The Coast of Utopia two seasons ago on Broadway.

Saturday, I had another such peak viewing thrill, Alan Ayckbourn's The Norman Conquests, three interlocking comedies about a guy named Norman who is determined to have an extra-marital affair and, worse yet, he chooses as his quarry his wife's sister.


The plays are currently in New York in a production transferred from London's Old Vic Company, playing on separate evenings, but on select Saturdays, all three plays are performed -- at 11:30 a.m., 3:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. -- an exhausting and exhilarating day's worth of theater.

Ayckbourn prides himself on his highly mathematical, intricately structured scripts such as The Norman Conquests -- three plays set at a Victorian country house in England over the course of a weekend, in the dining room, living room and garden of Norman's wife's family home. The three plays are supposed to be occurring at the same time, so as one character makes an exit, he often then walks into one of the other plays. The plays do stand on their own, but they gain an extra layer of humor with the knowledge of what is going on in the other locations.

Ayckbourn has been labeled a British Neil Simon, but his comedies have more depth than most of Simon's plays and often a dimension of human drama and pathos. Certainly that is the case with The Norman Conquests, even though this cast -- largely unknown in the United States -- milks it for plenty of laughs. If ever there were an argument for a Best Ensemble Tony Award, this production would be it.

Ayckbourn has written 71 plays, which are done all the time in England, but he has rarely been very successful over here. Because he has rarely had a production as sublime and silly and sad as The Norman Conquests, directed by Matthew Warchus, who also staged the terrific God of Carnage this season.

***

The Norman Conquests
made a memorable end to the week in New York. I fly home today and soon get to work on lengthier reviews of what I saw up here. Stay tuned.

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