|Lindsay Crouse and Richard Snee in Living Together.|
Last summer it seemed I was alone in raving over Gloucester Stage's production of Table Manners, the first play in Alan Ayckbourn's celebrated trilogy The Norman Conquests. In the Globe, Louise Kennedy smiled wanly but held her nose; meanwhile, in the Phoenix, Ed Siegel said it made him laugh but didn't "haunt his dreams." Okay . . . Meanwhile the Herald only deemed it "a solid production." Then last winter I had to argue for all I was worth to get it an IRNE nomination, and I don't think the Nahton Awahds deigned to notice it at all . . .
But as is so often the case here at the Hub Review, over the period of about a year everybody seems to have come around to my opinion; critic after critic now attests that Table Manners was a classic, to which this year's sequel, Living Together - which is blessed with the same artistic team - doesn't always measure up.
And in a way they have a point - Living Together isn't quite the play Table Manners is, primarily because for much of its first half we feel the exposition and action of the earlier play is merely being reworked in variation - perhaps an inevitable problem in a suite of comedies which are constructed to wrap around each other. Once again we find we are spending the weekend with three couples (thus three plays?), linked by blood or marriage, who are working their way through the disappointments and imprisonments of middle-class middle-age as they tend to an ailing matriarch in her dismal suburban homestead. And once again the perpetually priapic, but not terribly attractive, Norman is attempting to give existential despair the slip with one "affair" after another - and he doesn't much care if this involves betraying his own wife with her sister; indeed, he's happy to do every female-in-law in his family (we assume he'd stop at actual incest). And needless to say, the women in question are disapproving when they must play the betrayed victim, but rather more accommodating when they are Norman's actual targets - while their hapless menfolk are pretty much blind to everything.
But Living Together does eventually break some new emotional ground in its second act (and brings a touching new perspective to its clueless cuckolds) with the arrival of Norman's own wife, Ruth, who seemed so, well, ruthless in Table Manners but here is carefully complicated by the playwright into a more sympathetic figure. Utterly self-possessed and professional, Ruth seemed a kind of steamroller in the earlier play; she simply refused to believe Norman's squirrely horniness - or the depression that fed it - was worthy of her notice. But here we appreciate her overbearing calm is largely the result of her emotional (and literal) myopia - the blindness of this playwright's fools is one of his signatures - and Ayckbourn gives her a sweet, trusting openness to seduction (which Norman, of course, is happy to exploit). Indeed, the play climaxes cleverly with a desperately erectile Norman managing a startling sexual trifecta - in one case right beneath the nose of an uncomprehending spouse; like Ayckbourn himself, Norman is a master at cramming multiple narratives into a very confined space.
Still, does Living Together deepen the content of The Norman Conquests as much as it could - or should? My feeling is - not quite, although it's still a richer dramatic meal than you can expect from almost any of our millennial playwrights, and Gloucester Stage is carrying on here at nearly the same level it achieved with the trilogy's first installment.
The gap this time around, surprisingly enough, is Steven Barkhimer's Norman, who seems a bit too melancholic and deflated in the first act, and not quite relentless enough in the second. Ideally, we should sense behind Norman's tiny triumphs the emotional hollowness that, yes, haunts him - but while Barkhimer is clearly aware of this dimension of the role, he hasn't yet figured out how to crack it. Meanwhile, as the disapproving control-freak Sarah (who eventually becomes one of Norman's attempted conquests, too) Lindsay Crouse still hasn't fully put on the pair of bossypants Ayckbourn has written for her, perhaps out of fear of seeming too unsympathetic to the audience (she shouldn't worry); but Crouse does bloom nicely once her character starts to respond to Norman's attentions.
The rest of the cast - Richard Snee, Sarah Newhouse, Barlow Adamson, and Jennie Israel - is pretty much flawless. Newhouse is once again utterly believable as the disappointed Annie, who's literally in a slump, while Snee's comic timing is impeccable as the meticulously sublimated Reg, who's always devising parlor games so complicated even he can't remember all the rules. But it's Adamson and Israel who come off this time as best in show, even though Adamson has the least emotional development to work with, and Israel (who plays Ruth) the most. I'm not quite sure, in fact, how Adamson makes his dunder-headed character's silences work theatrically, but he does. And as for Israel, she all but walks off with the production in the second act; I wrote last summer that her Ruth was probably the best work I'd seen her do, and the performance has only deepened since then.
Meanwhile director Eric Engel skillfully keeps Ayckbourn's many comic gears turning smoothly - but I'm not sure he has made the climactic seductions quite as touching (or disturbing) as they might be. There are perhaps deeper, and even darker, dimensions to The Norman Conquests than the Gloucester cast reaches - still, this little playhouse, which often offers Boston's most sophisticated summer theatre, has come one step closer to completing one of the subtler artistic achievements I've seen on a local stage in the past few years. So I can't wait for the final installment next summer (which may the theatre gods grant!).