Aug. 11 2010 10:26 AM

The Norman Conquests is a cute look at a difficult lesson in life

Norman (Albert Dayan) is an enigma wrapped in a mystery covered in riddles (and booze).

Norman's wife Ruth has been fitted with contact lenses, but try as she might, she can't wear 'em, explaining that “life with Norman is full of unexpected eye movements.” The line is a pretty good description of the havoc Norman leaves in his wake; he only wants happiness for his family and will debase himself on every level to achieve it. A self-described “gigolo in a haystack,” this assistant librarian is legendarily horny and can't hold his liquor—he's also an object of his family's curiosity because he's dispensed with the social boundaries that keep their behaviors in check.

You'll get to know this guy in threes if you take in The Norman Conquests, Cygnet Theatre Company's very good Sir Alan Ayckboutrilogy on the intense roles (even the adverse ones) that people play in other people's lives. Norman may be your typically maverick central figure in a British sex-farce, but Ayckboutreats him (and the five other characters) unusually well; there's benevolence in his humor as we watch everybody's lives evaporate amid dreams unfulfilled. Ever so kindly, he and the directors illustrate a difficult aspect of the human experience—that adversity often defeats us simply because we choose to let it in.

Any other family, after all, would have thrown Norman (Albert Dayan) out on his wallet during their weekend stay at an English country house as he tries to seduce baffled sister-in-law Annie (Jo Anne Glover), sweet-talk his brother-in-law's bossy wife Sarah (Sandy Campbell), patch things up with the exasperated Ruth (Frances Anita Rivera) and generally spout platitudes and drink the house dry between rolls on the grass. But there's a certain charm in Norman's behavior, to which the other parties are inexplicably drawn. Dizzy brother-in-law Reg (Ron Choularton) thinks he's funny. Family friend Tom (Danny Campbell) says he's worldly-wise. The women are desperately seeking outlets for their boredom, and Norman at least provides a temporary distraction. The irony is that Norman's persistent presence devalues them all—a fact they may not even be aware of.

The three plays—'Round and 'Round the Garden, Living Together and Table Manners—call for wildly disparate body types amid the physical humor, and directors Sean Murray and Francis Gercke cast accordingly.

Meanwhile, I found 'Round and ‘Round the Garden the best of the lot amid the directors' attention to detail. The other two are certainly fine shows, although their occasional self-indulgence takes the action off course.

On Saturdays Sept. 18 and Oct. 9, Cygnet will mount all three plays, as it did when I recently went. I'd recommend against seeing the slate at once—six out of a presumed 16 waking hours is a lot of theater to handle, even with generous breaks in between (as funny as the plays are, the bloated program comes off as almost ingratiating). Content yourself with them one at a time, all the better to digest some extraordinary chemistry and crack performances by Choularton and Dayan.

This review is based on the daylong opening performances of Aug. 7. The Norman Conquests runs through Nov. 7 at Old Town Theatre, 4040 Twiggs St. in Old Town. $24-$54.


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