Friday, April 24, 2009

The Norman Conquests


By Alan Ayckbourn. Directed by Matthew Warchus. Circle in the Square. (CLOSED)

Director Matthew Warchus (God of Carnage, Boeing Boeing) has another critical hit on his hands. Critics unanimously praise his ability to direct hilarious farce and bring out its darker undertones. Even those who never cared much for Ayckbourn's plays find new depth and humor in them thanks in large part to the direction. Though a few critics grew tired by the third play, most agree that all three should be seen. There is some debate by critics as to whether the order of the play matters, but there is no debate about the excellence of the ensemble cast (all from the Old Vic production). Dan Kois's New York Magazine diary of the marathon was a little hard to grade, but his enjoyment of the plays was pretty clear, and he sure loved those peanut M&M's at the concession stand.
Note: The Village Voice's Michael Feingold has weighed in and has no use for the trilogy or this production, no matter how talented the actors.

The New York Times A+
(Ben Brantley) Has there been a better season on Broadway for ensemble acting? This six-character work, which arrives from the Old Vic Theater Company under the mighty Matthew Warchus’s direction, joins the swelling list of comedies, dramas and musicals in which performers connect and balance like ace trapeze artists...That the theater is in the round is not, for once, a disadvantage, because the backs and shoulders of these performers are as expressive of these bottled emotions as their faces are. As for what happens when the decanting comes (three times), via some homemade wine, I’ll gallantly refrain from diluting the pleasure of your tasting it. I know the question you want to ask. If you see only one of these plays, which should it be? Let me put it this way: You can’t lose with any one, but you win big if you go to all three. Seeing the entire trilogy in one day, as I did, allowed me the luxurious privilege of getting to know characters in a way that only fat novels allow. I wouldn’t have sacrificed one “oh,” “aah” or pause of those seven hours.

Bergen Record A+
(Robert Feldberg) Seeing the story three times isn't at all tiresome, as the more we know the characters, the funnier — and more touching, in their disappointments — they become. The six-member British cast, which honed its ensemble performance in London, is brilliantly expressive. The actors nail their characters' essential personalities right from the start — aided by Rob Howell's dead-on costumes — and then cleverly fill in the often-unexpected details. They are also delightfully adept at physical comedy, both broad (wrestling with a folded garden chair in a hopeless attempt to open it) and subtle (after rejecting Norman, a woman makes a barely perceptible move toward him before stepping back).

American Theater Web A+
(Andy Propst) Director Matthew Warchus (who demonstrated his flair with farce in his staging of Boeing Boeing last season) deftly balances the most raucous elements of "Conquests" with its more bittersweet elements and the deep wellsprings of emotion that are tapped during the family's weekend together. It's astounding how fluidly the plays' tones shift and often one can have the urge to laugh and wince simultaneously as the characters are placed into exceptionally funny situations that reveal insecurities or sting emotionally. The hairpin twists and turns of Ayckbourn's plays and the comedic highs that they scale are executed by a sextet of indefatigable actors who, after their run in the production at London's Old Vic, are delivering pitch-perfect performances.

Bloomberg News
(John Simon) The six actors -- Amelia Bullmore, Jessica Hynes, Stephen Mangan, Ben Miles, Paul Ritter and Amanda Root -- could not be better, and Matthew Warchus (of “Boeing-Boeing” and “God of Carnage” fame) conclusively establishes himself as one of our era’s supreme farce directors. Production values are up to snuff, notably Rob Howell’s costumes and David Howe’s lighting, and the writing is consistently superb. Ayckbourne’s greatness lies in deriving humor not so much from outrageous plotting and streams of one-liners, a la Neil Simon, as from deep insight into human foibles, affectionate kidding of erotic fantasies and verbal pratfalls, and unerring evocation of human folly and flailing. In short, his unsurpassable understanding of our fragile, fallible human condition.

Backstage A+
(Erik Haagensen) Director Matthew Warchus' brisk in-the-round staging is consistently attuned to the script's dark subtext while never stinting on its hilarity. And that's the secret to Ayckbourn's success: This isn't a mere farce; the nearly seven-hour combined running time justifies itself by providing the space to reveal the characters in all their maddening humanity. These people can be foolish, petulant, wasteful, wounding, and sad. But you'll only see that if you see all three plays. The producers would have you believe you can experience them in any order, but I would recommend putting Living Together, which seems least able to stand on its own, in the middle. And as the dramatic climax of Table Manners is not the end of the story, it should go first.

The Daily News A+
(Joe Dziemianowicz) The show, direct from London's Old Vic, is a real treat. Not just because of the sheer size, but because Ayckbourn's ability to crack you up is consistently on display - zinger after zinger, scene after scene, play after play. The show, direct from London's Old Vic, is a real treat. Not just because of the sheer size, but because Ayckbourn's ability to crack you up is consistently on display - zinger after zinger, scene after scene, play after play. Much of the success owes to Matthew Warchus ("God of Carnage," "Boeing-Boeing"), a director with a Midas touch for comedy who's steered a wonderful, well-oiled cast from across the pond. The six actors draw you irresistibly into their exploits.

NY1 A+
(Roma Torre) Ayckbourn gets human foibles better than almost anyone and it's the highest compliment to say that his humor is entirely organic. And with the phenomenal British cast intact from the celebrated London production, we get an added bonus. It's as if they were born to the roles. Just watch how these incredible actors plumb every juicy nuance embedded in their characters. Stephen Mangan's manic rogue womanizer Norman; his wife, the cynically hardened Ruth played by Amelia Bullmore; her sister, the dowdy, unfulfilled Annie and hen-pecked brother Reg played by Jessica Hynes and Paul Ritter respectively; Reg's nagging, prudish wife Sarah played by Amanda Root; and their neighbor, the vacuous, vacant-eyed vet Tom in the person of Ben Miles.

Associated Press
(Michael Kuchwara) Ayckbourn's dialogue crackles with the wit of fine British drawing-room comedy, often stinging but anchored in the sharp observations of a playwright who has a generous, forgiving heart for human frailty. Well, at least for everyone except Norman. And, not unexpectedly, a feeling of Chekhovian sadness, floats over the proceedings, too, a realization that life most often doesn't turn out the way you want it to... In London, the Old Vic's legendary proscenium auditorium was converted into an in-the-round theater, something already in place at Circle in the Square. The plays fit snugly into the space, bringing the audience almost into eyeball proximity with all the addictive, onstage tribulations.

The Hollywood Reporter A+
(Frank Scheck) Shifting effortlessly from broad farce to Chekhovian poignancy, the plays feature not only an endless series of hilarious one-liners but also some of the most brilliant physical clowning to be seen on Broadway. But despite all the hilarity, we're constantly reminded of the humanity of the characters -- even Norman, who remains wonderfully endearing despite his utterly amoral behavior. Credit for this must go not only to the writing but also the brilliance of the entire ensemble -- who thankfully have been brought over here despite their relative anonymity on these shores -- and the superb direction by Matthew Warchus, who, on the evidence of not only this production but also "Boeing-Boeing" and "God of Carnage," has established himself as the pre-eminent director of theatrical farce.

Theatermania A+
(David Finkle) For the prolific Ayckbourn, other people's marriages have often been a source of amusement, torment, and possible atonement. In these three works (the other plays are Table Manners and Round and Round the Garden), Ayckbourn takes approximately seven jolly hours to look at what happens over a sour weekend to two knot-tied couples and one not-yet-hitched pair (who may or may never get hitched). Throughout the plays, Ayckbourn never lets up on the hilarity while sending his implicit, absolutely unsentimental message that while relationships are fraught, they're all we've got at the end of the day. As might be expected, Ayckbourn has built this comedy cabinet with the consummate skill of a master carpenter. He places the three parts in -- as the disparate titles imply -- the dining room, living room and garden of a Victorian country house, with each play unfolding in one of the in-the-round settings Rob Howell has designed with appropriately unprepossessing middle-class detail. Some of the action is simultaneous and some sequential; so much of the fun is seeing how the plays dovetail from one to the next.

CurtainUp A+
(Elyse Sommer) To begin, a word about Ayckbourn's appeal to American audiences. His plays do indeed epitomize " Englishness." However, it's more than likely that The Norman Conquests' first appearance on Broadway was rather short-lived because it featured an American cast to portray these so distinctly English characters. When Ayckbourn's plays arrive on our shores with an English cast (like Private Fears Public Places and Intimate Exchanges, both part of the popular Brits Off-Broadway Festival at 59e59th street-- see link below) audiences respond both to Ayckbourn's clever structural gimmickry and the darkness that adds depth to his humor. Luckily, this new but hilarious and poignant as ever Norman Conquests has come to Broadway with the terrific British cast and director from the much lauded Old Vic production on board. While Mr. Warchus has made quite a name for himself as the director of of Yasmina Rez's plays, most recently God of Carnage none of the cast members are likely to be as well known as were their 1975 American counterparts (Richard Benjamin, Ken Howard, Barry Nelson Estelle Parsons, Paula Prentice and Carole Shelley). But, no matter. This is a simply superb ensemble. Their timing is sheer perfection— whether individually or in concert, whether in landing a punch line or coming out of some of the meaningful pauses that punctuate this family's idiosyncratic behavior. Their body language and facial expressions are fraught with meaning so that you'll often find yourself laughing even when not a word is said.

Talk Entertainment A+
(Oscar E Moore) You will be hooked on these characters and want to know what happens to them over this long, illuminating and catastrophic weekend. In fact after seeing Garden I made sure to see the other two installments. Is is quite the theatrical event of the season. An incredible feat of theatrical engineering. Not since the original PBS series Brideshead Revisited have I been so intrigued to the point of becoming addicted to a group of English characters. The production has been brought over from London with its original Old Vic cast and directed with sardonic glee and finesse by Matthew Warchus – in the round - at Circle in the Square Theatre for a limited engagement of 16 weeks. It is not to be missed.

New Yorker A+
(Trish Deitch) Wilder and farther outside the box than your average drawing-room comedy, this sophisticated, hilarious, and ultimately profound trilogy, masterfully directed by Matthew Warchus, takes shtick about as far as it can go in nearly seven hours—which is to say, unusually far. A lot is owed to the six actors, who bring their characters’ vulnerabilities to life in fresh and vivid ways.

Lighting & Sound America A
(David Barbour) Under Warchus' keen-eyed direction, these comedies of acute embarrassment are all played for real, not for laughs, the result being that the laughs are huge; he also lets the action pause every now and then to reveal just how deeply unhappy six people can be. "I think other people's marriages are invariably a source of amazement," says Ruth, in one of her more charitable moments; here they're a source of endless amusement. The production also benefits from an ingenious design. Rob Howell's circular set is topped by a disk depicting the local countryside in miniature; it rises to reveal the setting of each play. David Howe's marvelously subtle lighting creates thoroughly believable interior and exterior effects, as well as bright morning sunlight and moody moon-washed looks. Howell's costumes are models of mid-'70s middle-class taste. Simon Baker's sound design includes birdsong and a cat's meow (a key plot point), as well as reinforcement for Gary Yershon's incidental music and a playlist of period pop tunes, including "Here Comes the Sun."...Even if you see only one, rest assured that you'll be experiencing Ayckbourn's work as it is meant to be done. The Norman Conquests is more than the most amusing attraction on Broadway -- it's a master class in truthful comic acting.

(David Cote) We all know that 2008–09 has been the Season of the Star: An unusually high number of marquee names—from Daniel Radcliffe to Jane Fonda—have scattered stardust across the boards, goosing box offices and earning unwarranted praise in some quarters. With the arrival of The Norman Conquests (hot on the heels of last week’s Mary Stuart), you can forget such slumming celebritude. The sextet that drives this unique treat offers the proverbial master class in meticulously crafted seriocomic performance. Here’s hoping some of those big names take a night off from their shows to learn a trick or two.

USA Today A
(Elysa Gardner) The angst is more exhilarating, and abundant, in The Norman Conquests (* * *½), now at the Circle in the Square Theatre. This splendid new staging of Alan Ayckbourn's comic trilogy, imported from London's Old Vic, runs just under seven hours, including three 20-minute intermissions. But director Matthew Warchus and his expert cast make the time fly, even if you see the plays in succession, as they're performed on Saturdays and select Sundays.

Entertainment Weekly A
(Melissa Rose Bernardo) The perfection of Conquests' construction isn't evident until you view all three — each a slice of a single weekend-in-the-country life cut from three spots (a dining room, lounge, and garden). For proof of the trilogy's expert craftsmanship, read them in sequence, as Ayckbourn wrote them: Begin with scene 1 of Round and Round the Garden, then scene 1 of Table Manners, then scene 1 of Living Together, and so on. You'll find yourself flipping between the scripts mid-scene when actions occur simultaneously. It's masterful — an impenetrable dramaturgical fortress. Not a crack to be found. (The British author's easy way with a laugh, not to mention his sheer productivity — the 70-year-old has penned 72 full-length plays — often belies his skill.) Similarly, only upon the completion of the trilogy is the depth of these six characters revealed.

Wall Street Journal A
(Terry Teachout) Alan Ayckbourn writes funny plays about sad people. It's an unsettling combination, which may explain why England's most popular and prolific playwright isn't as well known in this country as he ought to be -- but if anything can put Mr. Ayckbourn at the center of our theatrical map, it'll be the Old Vic's razor-sharp revival of "The Norman Conquests," which has come to Broadway after a triumphant London run. This 1973 triptych of plays about the travails of a suburban family is one of the 20th century's comic masterpieces, and the Old Vic's production is as good a staging as you're likely to see in your lifetime... All six members of Mr. Warchus's ensemble cast also appeared in London, and their well-honed performances snap together with crisp precision. Ms. Hynes is not as subtle as her colleagues -- Finnerty Steeves' performance in the Milwaukee Repertory Theater's equally fine 2007 revival of "The Norman Conquests" was quite a bit more poignant -- but she holds her own.

Variety A
(David Rooney) Ayckbourn's Chekhovian ability to reveal brooding depths without relinquishing humor has never been sharper. Each character gets more than one moment of self-revelation, but the playwright and director linger on the pathos just long enough, pulling back to show the funny side of even the most melancholy insights. What makes the plays so enjoyable is the tangy balance of bitterness and compassion; the characters are maddening and their relationships deeply frustrating, but they seem destined to endure. Even their most brittle exchanges bear traces of tenderness. The play's observations may occasionally show their roots in the mid-'70s -- a period evoked with crisp understatement by the director and designers -- but the material and its endless volley of jokes have aged remarkably well. Nobody does escalating mayhem like Warchus, but no matter how farcical the situation, the superb actors remain anchored in a naturalistic style that keeps the characters' quirks believable.

(Matt Windman) Matthew Warchus, who also directed “God of Carnage” and “Boeing-Boeing,” is truly a master when it comes to staging comedy. And in this absolutely hysterical in-the-round production with an impeccable cast, “The Norman Conquests” turns out to be one of the most rewarding theatrical experiences in an already overstuffed spring season on Broadway.

(Dan Kois) 6 p.m. Living Together, which ends on something of a melancholic note, is weaker than Table Manners. It would be fun to watch a Norman’s Greatest Conquests show collecting the five funniest scenes of the trilogy. It’s the iTunes era; why not customizable theater as well?... 10:15 p.m. As Garden ends, I realize all three plays have already melted in my memory into one delicious theatrical experience—the longueur fading away, the comic high points even funnier in retrospect. Though all of my dates have been suitably entertained, I’m pretty glad I ran the marathon. “I just want to make you happy!” Norman tells his women throughout the trilogy. Bless his ridiculous heart, he did.

The Observer A-
(John Heilpern) The premise of The Norman Conquests is deceptively close to a typically English farce like No Sex Please, We’re British... Still, The Norman Conquests goes beyond the norms of boulevard comedy. Mr. Ayckbourn’s recent Private Fears in Public Places (2004) touchingly reveals the playwright’s real intentions—should there have been any doubt. He’s hilariously serious. His comedies are sly portraits of human folly. But I disagree with those critics who acclaim Mr. Ayckbourn as the British Chekhov. True, Chekhov also wrote comedies set in country houses—but does that make him the Russian Alan Ayckbourn?

New York Post A-
(Elisabeth Vincentelli) A merry British sprite has been sprinkling magic dust all over Broad way. No, it's not Mary Poppins: It's Matthew Warchus. After last season's "Boeing-Boeing" and, more recently, "God of Carnage," the director's just spun comic gold out of another good-not-great play. Warchus' main asset is his sense of the way timing and spatial relationships work together. He's like a chess master mapping his moves several turns in advance, a gift that comes in handy when tackling the intricately plotted "The Norman Conquests."...Warchus understands on a visceral level the seemingly contradictory importance of abandon and precision when drawing laughs: You have to let loose but always remain in control. Here this translates into utmost clarity (you always know who's doing what where) and actorly fireworks.

Talkin' Broadway B+
(Matthew Murray) If you can only swing one play, it should not be Living Together, which it offers the least as an individual entity and derives the most from the happenings in the other plays. If you can manage all three, the Trilogy Day order is tops: Table Manners, then Living Together, and finally Round and Round the Garden. The first is the best at establishing the emotional baseline for events, and the characters' lunch and dinner badinage (punctuated by the most uproarious salad-eating and alcohol-drinking you're ever likely to see onstage) makes it the funniest overall. The second is transitionally written, affectionate, and the most dependent on everyone's comings and goings. The last, containing the earliest and latest scenes in the chronology and the heaviest dollops of sight gags and farcical humor, will resonate louder and longer once you've come to intimately know everyone. That said, The Norman Conquests is no Coast of Utopia. It lacks that work's majesty and sense of once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and because its chapters happen essentially simultaneously rather than sequentially, seeing all three chapters is not that much different than merely seeing one. And although there are some secret pleasures to be had by those who conquer the full trio, they're not exactly powerful, profound, or prurient in any earth-shaking way. You'll leave the theater entertained, but not changed - this is one theatrical outing where the memories don't burn as brightly as the during-the-event moments. B
(Martin Denton) This is absolutely an ensemble piece, and the company that a flock of producers has imported from London's Old Vic Theatre is top-notch and works together brilliantly. My personal favorites are Ben Miles, who plays the ponderous Tom as a man with a slow wit and a good heart, and Paul Ritter, who is utterly convincing and quite likable as lazy, lonely, make-the-best-of-everything Reg. Stephen Mangan is appealingly goofy as Norman, but the more time I spent with his character the more I sensed a manipulative streak that I found unattractive. Amelia Bullmore is spot-on as Ruth, and her adventure with a folding chair in Round and Round the Garden was the highpoint of the trilogy's hilarity for me. I found that I warmed to Jessica Hynes's scruffy, sometimes abrasive Annie more with each new play. But Amanda Root's Sarah didn't always work for me—I thought she missed the authority and rigor of the character, replacing it with a weak whininess that put me off (in Root's defense, I have very fond memories of Penelope Keith's Sarah from the TV version of The Norman Conquests, which I saw quite a few years ago). Rob Howell has given the trilogy a design as ingenious and clever as Ayckbourn's structure for it, and David Howe's lighting and Simon Baker's sound support it beautifully, providing useful clues about where we are within the weekend during any given scene. Gary Yershon's music feels less evocative, though, and the choice to use Nina Simone's cover of "Here Comes the Sun" for exit music, though period-appropriate, puzzled me: I never knew what I was meant to be feeling as I left this crazy family weekend for the relative safety of the Manhattan street.

Newsday C+
(Linda Winer) Are these three plays worth almost eight hours of precious life (not counting breaks) at precious Broadway prices? Based on the 360-degree wraparound of laughter around me, I assume that, for many theatergoers, the investment can bring comparable payoff. For the rest of us, however, this is a heavy commitment for such light entertainment. And, though dots are ingeniously connected by seeing the same relationships lived out in three locations of an English country house, the slim story does not get hefty enough - or the characters, interesting enough - to justify such endurance. Still, it is a pleasure to watch six first-rate actors have their way with the comic hazards of emotional connections on a disaster-filled country weekend.

The Village Voice F
(Michael Feingold) Funny for five minutes, the event's unaffecting pointlessness makes a stupefying seven-hour sit-through. The British cast, under Matthew Warchus's direction, plays it all extremely well; why they or anyone else would bother is the incomprehensible part. The one clue I could garner, from the audience's laughter at certain non-funny moments, is that Ayckbourn makes the ordinary public feel intelligent by showing them how the pieces fit together. That the effort is pointless and the resultant picture uninteresting makes no matter; the busywork of assembling the puzzle is enough. It seems a terrible waste of the theater's resources.

The New York Times A+ 14; Bergen Record A+ 14; American Theater Web A+ 14; Bloomberg News A+ 14; Backstage A+ 14; The Daily News A+ 14; NY1 A+ 14; AP A+ 14; Hollywood Reporter A+ 14; Theatermania A+ 14; CurtainUp A+ 14; Talk Entertainment A+ 14; New Yorker A+ 14; Lighting & Sound America A 13; TONY A 13; USA Today A 13; EW A 13; WSJ A 13; Variety A 13; AMNY A 13; NYMag A 13; The Observer A- 12; New York Post A- 12; Talkin' Broadway B+ 11; B 10; Newsday C+ 8; Village Voice F 1; TOTAL: 340/27 = 12.59 (A)

1 comment:

Kirk Bromley said...

Hey…I want to let you know about an opportunity for your blog.

The Norman Conquests on Broadway (recently nominated for 7 Tony Awards!) is running a “Quirky Question Contest.” We’re taking question submissions, and the best quirky question will win $100!

It’s all explained here:

We’d love to have your questions, and you can submit as many as you want!

Deadline is May 25, 2009


Team Norman