Currier's Conquests

The Norman Conquests Written by Alan Ayckbourn Directed by David Reiffel At the Currier House Fishbowl, December 5, 6, 7

DON'T BE discouraged by the distance. The Quad is a long way off, especially on cold December nights, but the Currier House Drama Society's production of Alan Ayckbourn's trilogy of comedies makes the trip worth the time and effort.

You might want to make an evening of it--dinner at the Currier House Dining Hall, a stroll around the Quad or (if it's chilly) Hilles, and then a few hours of excellent theater. Better yet, make two evenings of it because the three parts of The Norman Conquests are spread over two nights. "Table Manners" and "Living Together" are a double bill Wednesday nights, with "Living Together" and "Round and Round the Garden" on Thursday, and "Round and Round the Garden and "Table Manners" on Friday.

This unique structure makes The Norman Conquests the theatrical equivalent of a television mini-series. The action in all three plays takes place during a weekend at a suburban London house. Each installment, however, depicts the humorous and amorous goings-on in a different room.

The story, which an attentive viewer can decipher by watching any single episode, centers on the repeated attempts by Norman (Ralph Zito), the title character, to convince his sister-in-law Annie (Nora Seton) to go away with him, for the weekend. Annie invites her brother Reg (David Prun) and his wife Sarah (Louisa Jerauld) to the house to care for their mother while she is gone.

But Sarah discovers Norman's and Annie's true plans, convinces her not to go away, and informs Norman's wife--Annie's sister--Ruth (Lizellen La Follette) of their adulterous intentions. To confuse matters, neighborhood veterinarian and nerd Tom (Paul Gottlieb) has romantic interests in Annie.

It's all a bit complicated, somewhat contrived, but quite a lot of fun, especially when Ruth tries to elicit some kind of emotional reaction from the impassive Tom--whom she loathes--by telling him of her desire to roll around in the grass at his feet wearing only her glasses. The mild-mannered vet, more concerned with cats than women, remains stoic.

Norman describes Tom at one point as a man who has "never had an agressive thought in his little mind." That meekness in Tom's character occasionally shows itself in Gottlieb's portrayal, most notably in the first scene. On balance, though, Gottlieb slumps through his role well, with a humourous mixture of bumbling incertitude and maddening lack of perceptiveness.

La Follette, as Tom's would-be temptress and Norman's oft-eschewed wife Ruth, achieves a balance of incisiveness and insightfulness that makes her character whole and believable. Although she seems to seethe with an underlying intensity, La Follette at times stifles her portrayal, as she does in act two, scene one of "Round and Round the Garden," when she converses with Sarah so quietly that some of her words are lost to the back rows.

If La Follette is sometimes too subdued, Jerauld is all too often not subtle enough. She plays the prim, proper and meddlesome Sarah with a repertoire of grandiose and stereotypical gestures and inflections. Except for her garden conversation with Ruth, most of Jerauld's performance is forced and contrived. Prum, on the other hand, turns in a controlled, clearly delineated and uniformly excellent portrayal of Sarah's husband Reg.

Seton combines naive hesitancy with repressed desire in her characterization of Reg's sister Annie. Although her mugging and hand-wringing border on slapstick in a garden discussion about the illicit weekend together, Seton's performance overall is humorous and believable.

In this garden conversation, Annie compares Norman to a shaggy Old English sheepdog. Zito translates that canine quality into a portrayal of the philandering Norman that outshines everyone in a show with several excellent performances. A natural on stage, Zito imbues Norman with a childish whimsicality and impetuousness that, like the three women in the play, you can't help adoring--and, ultimately, despising.

Credit for the show's success must go not only to the actors, but to director Reiffel, who also designed the music, lighting, and sparse but functional set. Only in the first scene of "Garden" when Norman enters carrying his pajamas, does Reiffel's staging falter. As Norman slinks about and Tom stalks a lost cat, the pacing is off, and the scene drags.

But Reiffel more than makes up for the problems in the opening with a riotous climax in the second act in which Annie and Norman collapse onto the lawn in a tumult of passion as Reg and Tom chat obliviously only a few feet away.

THAT LITTLE TRYST on the turf is as far as Norman gets with Annie, or any of the women for that matter; and at the end of the play, as all three turn their backs on him, all he can do is scream in frustration, "I only wanted to make you happy."

Despite the few weak moments and brief periods of uninspired acting and staging in "Round and Round the Garden," Currier's Conquests, unlike Norman's, are a resounding triumph.