Thursday, June 28, 2012

Gloucester gets back to the Garden

Steven Barkhimer, Richard Snee, and Barlow Adamson search for pussy up in Gloucester.
Just in case you can't quite limn the theme of Round and Round the Garden, the last round of Alan Ayckbourn's The Norman Conquests (and also the final leg of what amounts to a triple crown for Gloucester Stage, where it runs through this weekend), the playwright spells it out for you in a joke straight out of the middle-school playground - or maybe some James Bond extravaganza.

For when we first meet the benighted men of Ayckbourn's sardonic roundelay, they're actually out among the flower beds of the title, forlornly calling, "Pussy?  Pusss-ssyyyy . . ? Pussy!"

Yes, they're looking for pussy - and having a damned hard time finding any (the thin excuse for their antics is that the local cat is up a tree).  Their helpless consternation serves as the motor of Ayckbourn's comic action - which follows, once again, the pathetic search for - well, you-know-what - by unlikely lothario Norman (Steven Barkhimer), who is desperate to bed his wife's sister, her brother's wife, or even his own spouse.  All these campaigns (even the marital one) fail epically, of course - as they've foundered in the previous two installments of Ayckbourn's triptych (which all follow the same events, during the same weekend, from different parts of the same house).  The difference this time, however, is the way Ayckbourn subtly shifts his focus from the eponymous Norman to his eponymous Conquests - and what an unflattering light he generally sheds on them.

It's perhaps not surprising, however, given the pressures of political correctness, that today's critics can't seem to see the cards Ayckbourn has played right in front of their noses.  Indeed, if you read the local reviews, you'd imagine that the hapless Norman is meant to be (or at any rate should be) the object of our patronizing scorn.  Not that he doesn't deserve that, and worse - anyone who would seduce his wife's sister has it more than coming - but Ayckbourn has already dispensed with most of that condemnation in Table Manners and Living Together (set, of course, in the dining and living rooms, respectively).   This time around, the playwright has Norman's judges in his sights.  And what he sees isn't pretty.  You could even argue that the play amounts to a long, unforgiving analysis of the inability of women to connect romantically with men.

Indeed, as we watch Garden, we keep being reminded of the unseen matriarch - mother of Ayckbourn's unhappy trio of siblings - installed at the top of the house in question.  In the end, she is calling the shots - and she's bitter, and bed-ridden; and what's more, demands that her daughter spend her day reading her the dirty parts from bodice-rippers she picks up at the grocery store.  It's a grim picture - but gradually we realize all the women in the play are headed in the same direction: a sterile grasp on domestic power, with a sex life permanently relegated to fantasy.

It's at such moments, of course, that you realize the attempts to pigeon-hole Ayckbourn with the likes of Neil Simon will ultimately fail; for The Norman Conquests boasts a steadily-unfolding thematic structure that lies beyond Simon's skills, even at their best.  Indeed, we're struck again and again in Garden by the nested ironies of the trilogy's eventual conclusion. For while Norman has been flailing away at attempted adultery, in turns out that another romantic gambit has actually been underway the whole time - this one of loyal, true love, in fact, from a man (the cluelessly earnest Tom) who is utterly opposed to Norman's glibly romantic narcissism.  The trouble is, his proposal fails, too; the woman in question actually rejects the real thing when she has her chance.  Indeed, she mutters that she probably won't be ready for commitment until she has "taken a trip" - which is precisely what Norman has been begging her to do.

So if you're looking for irony, you'll find it in spades among the spades of Ayckbourn's Garden.  But perhaps the most ironic thing about his play is the way its action grows lighter even as its themes grow darker; Garden may be a bit ungainly in its structure (the playwright often has to dodge the scenes he has already written that are now unfolding off-stage, as it were), but it's graced with some of the trilogy's strongest physical comedy (a specialty of the spry Barkhimer), which is brought off with confident panache by the skilled farceurs at Gloucester, most of whom have been playing these characters for years (the theatre staged Table Manners two summers ago).

There is one newcomer to the cast - Adrianne Krstansky has replaced Jennie Israel as Norman's wife, the long-suffering Ruth.  I can't pretend I didn't miss Israel's suffocating martyrdom - which all but perfectly suppressed Barkhimer's impishness - but Krstansky finds her own, slightly brassier way with the role, and at any rate this time around Ruth is more often enmeshed with Tom (Barlow Adamson), the gently doltish veterinarian who's clearly in love with Norman's sister Annie (a spectacularly frazzled Sarah Newhouse).  Adamson is so good in this part that we almost buy the playwright's conceit - of a grown man sweetly out of touch with his own libido; but I'm afraid that skillful as he is, Adamson can't always quite hide the fact that Tom feels a bit too much like a constructed foil for Norman - slightly more caricature than character.

But that doesn't mean he isn't as much fun as the rest of the company, which is rounded out by the ever-skillful Richard Snee and the surprisingly affecting Lindsay Crouse (whose performance, I think, has grown over the years from the most unsteady of the ensemble to the most poised).  As ever, this talented crew has been astutely and sympathetically directed by Eric C. Engel, on yet another wittily skewed set from Jenna McFarland Lord.  You could argue, I think, that here and there this production doesn't fully tap into the near-tragic sense of frustration at the root of Ayckbourn's Garden; but it's still a blooming good time, and you'd be a fool to miss the final bows of a three-year project that I think may become something of a local legend.

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