How far can you go with farce? The playwright with the answer to that question is Alan Ayckbourn, and the current Old Vic revival of his 1973 trilogy The Norman Conquests proves him right beyond a shadow of a doubt. Transferring from its successful run in London, it opened last week with a caliber of performance that will undoubtedly conquer Broadway.
Being one of the first revivals in a revival-laden season to breathe the true life of revitalization into a piece, this trilogy is the perfect way to usher in the muse of spring. As with any good farce, it's all about sex and leaves its characters to fall between the camps of those who are getting none and those who are getting far too much, following the six characters through a wild weekend.
Arguing the case that there can be no such thing as getting too much sex with too many people is the unstoppable, phallic force known as Norman, masterfully played by Stephen Mangan. Channeling the unbridled spirit of Dionysus, Norman invites all the play's females to undress and surrender to lust with him, regardless of their marital status. Mangan successfully walks the delicate line of committing countless unforgivable infidelities and remaining likeable to the audience. Combining the sex drive of a grown man with a child's aversion to responsibility, he plays out the primitive desires that are suppressed in most by the civilized conventions of morality.
Falling on the other side of scale is Paul Ritter's Reg, who is riddled with a nervous tension that tells of the seething, unsatisfied sexual needs beneath. From the moment he walks on stage, Ritter bobs and ticks with this hilarious energy, calming only in moments when he honestly contemplates the desires he is not fulfilling. Of the females, Amelia Bullmore's Ruth is the most experienced veteran in this battle of the sexes. From her first entrance, Bullmore beams with a world-weary wisdom that knows there is no use in trying to harness the wild forces of the wind and even less sense in trying to get Norman to keep his pants on. Making frustrations funny and sarcasm sexy, she cuts a seductive figure on this stage of human foibles.
The set of the third and final part, Round and Round the Garden, designed by Rob Howell, alludes to the themes of the material with bricks of the civilized world succumbing to a wildly overgrown lawn. The lovers take their chances when going for a roll in this untamed field -- mixing lush, real grass as well as prickly thorns -- designated for the game of love.
Director Matthew Warchus sets an appropriate tempo for the action, allowing calmer scenes their place, thus leaving somewhere to build to in the play's more manic moments. Warchus's staging in the final moments of Round and Round has a natural progression that lands in the ultimate standoff: Norman facing his three conquests simultaneously. While clouded in their secret seclusions with Norman, each woman is able to entertain some misguided fantasy, but when openly confronted with the collective nature of their trysts, all illusions are shattered. In the end, Norman fails to make anyone permanently happy, himself included.
No matter how legal the porn industry becomes or how openly it is discussed, sex, at least in the Western world, is still a touchy subject when it is brought down to the personal level. Facing it with farce is a healthy step in the right direction, and this production makes no qualms about putting its foot down on the subject in a memorable way. - C. Jefferson Thom
The Norman Conquests through July 26, Circle in the Square Theater, 1633 Broadway, NYC
Mr. Thom lives in New York City and walks dogs, writes plays, and loves dissecting pop culture.