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The World’s Worst House Party: FPCT Presents Alan Ayckbourn’s Table Manners

 

            The house party is a staple of British comedy and light drama.  George Bernard Shaw, Noel Coward, and Agatha Christie, among many others, have depicted genteel gatherings over a weekend where people mingle, generally in drawing rooms, and strike amusing attitudes – and sparks.  It’s a great framing device, creating something like an Aristotelian “unity,” compressing all the action into a bite-sized chunk.

            One of my favorite entries in the house party stakes is Alan Ayckbourn’s trilogy, The Norman Conquests (1973).  As a trilogy, each part of which covers the same three days in the same house, it captures about as well as can be done the sense that even in a circumscribed environment, wherever you’re standing is offstage from the point of view of somewhere else.  Hence Table Manners takes place in the dining room at the same time as Living Together takes place in the living room and Round and Round the Garden takes place in the garden (naturally).  Exits from one play may be entrances into another.  And of course the perspective you get from the part of the story you see in one play may differ significantly from the perspective you get from another.

            This is a bit different from most of the house party plays because it’s a strictly middle-class affair.  There are no servants and no toffs.  It’s not about social class at all, which is always hard to imagine when one is talking British comedy, and certainly not applicable to the other playwrights’ house party plays I’ve mentioned.  Nor does it follow another convention of the genre, which is that when all the comic spats and coupling and uncoupling are done, no real blood is drawn.  Instead, there is some dimension to the characters – not too much, but some, and the things that drive the characters are more than just dramatic conventions.  These characters have some capacity to be hurt, and there is a real ruefulness to some of the laughs.  In fact, one could argue that it is precisely this vulnerability, this taking seriously of the hurts that love and sex can inflict, that moves the play all the more into middle-class territory, but in an un-self-conscious way.

            Perhaps it would be better to say that four of the six characters in the plays have some dimension.  Two of the men, Tom, a veterinarian (portrayed in the new Fells Point Corner Theatre’s revival by Patrick Martyn) and Reg (Tom Wyatt) are clueless stereotypes.  Tom cannot tell a joke and cannot understand, however subtly or directly it is put to him, that he is expected to propose to Annie (Laura Gifford).  Reg, Annie’s brother, cannot reliably remember the names of his young children, and basically wanders through life waiting to golf and to be fed.  These oafish if decent men act as foils and buffers for the other characters.

            At the center stands Norman (Harry B. Turner), who despite being a librarian, meaning that we’d expect him to be heavy on the Superego, is in fact the personification of pure Id.  He wants to bed all of the women in the play, and will say or do anything to make that happen, without regard to what it makes anyone think of him.  But there are deeper and more troubling dimensions to Norman: an irritability that hints of the total dessication of soul, a wildness that mingles a strong self-defeating quality with a degree of menace.  You can never tell what Norman will do next, which makes him fascinating to watch.  Turner’s rendering made me forget completely for a while the “standard” funnier and much less threatening Norman portrayed on television by Tom Conti in 1978.  This is a harsh and desperate Norman, with a savage glint in his eye.  From the moment Turner walks on, late in the First Act, you never take your eyes off him.

             Circling around Norman’s sun are three female planets: the aforementioned Annie, a lonely spinster caretaker of an unseen invalid mother upstairs; Norman’s actual wife Ruth (portrayed through November 21 by Cherie Weinert, and thereafter by Patricia Coleman), a businesswoman who is more or less resigned to Norman’s adulterous ways, and is struggling to maintain some kind of life despite them; and Sarah, Reg’s wife (Holly Pasciullo), whose bossiness and maternal bearing covers certain needs not met by Reg which Norman plans to cater to.

             This unstable mixture of motives plays out – in Table Manners, at least, in three set-piece meals that are the very antithesis of polite family dining.  The second in particular, a long-day’s-journey-into-night of a dinner party which ends up with almost everyone having screamed something unforgivable and Norman on the floor nursing a sore jaw where Tom slugged him, is unspeakably funny.  There’s all kinds of good business in this scene with lethal homemade hooch, a too-short chair, and dreadful cooking coming from an inadequately stocked larder, but the heart of it is the interplay of character and dialogue.  To do it properly, you need two things.  One is passable British accents all around – and by that I don’t mean simply the ability to say words using the correct phonemes; it is the ability to wring comedy from British intonations, which differ from ours.  The cast measure up here.  And the other requisite is comic timing, a burden that falls primarily on the director.  Steve Goldklang conducts this ensemble masterfully.

             The overall effect is as tonic as a champagne cork popping.  The audience was in stitches.

             The cast is full of local stalwarts.  It’s been about two decades since I last saw Harry Turner, and clearly he has matured, and is able to make this unpredictable figure of comedy and menace live in a way a younger actor could not.  And if I’m not mistaken, the last time I saw Weinert was at about the same time; in the interim she has moved from ingenue to one who can portray middle-aged frustration and weariness with real pathos.  I had occasion to praise Holly Pasciullo only a couple of months ago in Curtains at Cockpit; as I said then, I’d like to see her in Shakespeare.  But in the meantime the overbearing yet vulnerable Sarah will do nicely.  I will long remember the cat-who-swallowed-the-cream look on her face after Norman has just made a pass at her.  And the others are all worth seeing, too.

             The pity of it is that we can’t get all three plays performed by the same cast.  But simultaneous production of all three plays is quite a heavy lift.  We shall have to be grateful for what we see here.

 The Norman Conquests, by Alan Ayckbourn, Thursdays to Saturdays, Sunday matinees to December 5, at Fells Point Corner Theatre, 251 South Ann Street, Baltimore, MD 21231.  www.fpct.org. 



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