Talk about long weekends. Playwright Alan Ayckbourn assembled six characters in an English country home for a cycle of plays whose parallel action stretches over 2 1/2 days. Live Theatre Workshop has now presented Ayckbourn's complete weekend trilogy--over the course of six years.
The company began its survey of the trilogy in 1999 with what is actually the third play; the first came in 2001, and only now are we getting to the middle point, as fitting of a place as any to end up, because the plays take place simultaneously.
Collectively titled The Norman Conquests, they're not about British history but about a British womanizer named Norman. He, his wife, various in-laws and one in-law's suitor spend the weekend pursuing one another around a country house, more in righteous indignation than in lust. For this is not your standard hormone-driven farce; the point is not sexual indiscretion, but how family members react to sexual indiscretion.
Living Together takes place in the sitting room; characters who enter from or leave to the dining room are stepping into another simultaneously situated play, Table Manners, and those coming from outdoors have just exited Round and Round the Garden. You don't have to see all three plays to understand what's going on, but it helps. Why does one character enter abruptly, sputter a bit, pick up a wastebasket and leave? You'll have to see Table Manners to figure that out. More importantly, why does the fierce and indignant Sarah soften toward Norman in the second act? The full story lies in the other plays, and for now, you have to sort things out for yourself.
One character tries to get his relatives to play a cops-and-robbers board game he has invented; in it, a police token can effectively see around the corners of the path on the board. "Nobody can see around corners," one of the players objects, but we can, if we've had the opportunity to see the other Norman Conquests plays and observe the activities in other parts of the house.
Living Together is more complex than most farces--not in terms of entrances and exits, but in the shifting complexities of the characters' relationships. And one of the strengths of Live Theatre Workshop's Stephen Frankenfield-directed production is that the director and actors don't populate this house with English-farce types. Each person is carefully individualized, and the actors operate at a lower pitch than you'd expect from this sort of play.
Consider Annie, Norman's sister-in-law, whom he had hoped to spirit off to a resort for the weekend. As played by Molly Holleran, Annie is more stalwart and less volatile than in more superficial productions. If there's a problem with Holleran, it's that she's too cute to play a woman who is supposed to look drab. And that's a wonderful aspect of this play--the women Norman pursues aren't sexpots, and Norman himself is hardly a stud (he's an assistant librarian, after all). Norman is not, at heart, a scheming womanizer; he's simply a victim of his own talent for making troubled women feel desired, and maybe even loved.
In this respect, Cliff Madison is a perfect Norman. He's the anti-Lothario, short and pudgy, self-pitying and utterly transparent. Yet, there's something appealing about his childlike self-confidence; you can understand how women who ought to know better eventually, after great resistance, succumb to his charms.
Similarly, Jeremy Thompson isn't nearly the colorless bore that game-inventing brother-in-law Reg can be; he's good-natured, sympathetic, even cuddly--a fellow who is simply comfortable being as uncomplicated as possible. Which is a smart tactic, considering that his wife is the perpetually indignant Sarah, a character who in other productions calls to mind such terms as "shrew" and "harpy." As played by Lisa Mae Roether, Sarah still is not the chummiest of figures, but her exasperation with her relatives remains within human norms. If her change of demeanor in the second act seems unmotivated, that's Ayckbourn's fault, not Roether's.
Jonathan Northover plays Annie's boyfriend, the dense veterinarian Tom, as a more socially adept, rural English Napoleon Dynamite. And Delani Cody makes Norman's long-suffering wife, Ruth, seem a less silly, (justifiably) petulant figure than she can appear to be in the other plays.
It would be nice if eventually Frankenfield and this cast could present the full Norman Conquest trilogy in repertory, but at the rate Live Theatre Workshop has been poking through these Alan Ayckbourn plays, the action will have to be reset to a nursing home, and we'll all be eligible for senior-citizen discounts. Perhaps, given the perceptive current production, it would be worth the wait.