'The Norman Conquests'


Alan Ayckbourn's early-1970s trilogy "The Norman Conquests" has been acclaimed for the genius of its elaborately conceived structure, with the plays fitting into one another like the pieces of a Swiss watch. But the revelation of this Broadway revival, imported after an acclaimed run at London's Old Vic Theatre, is how deeply moving —as well as uproariously funny —these comedies of manners are.

England's most commercially successful living playwright, the prolific Ayckbourn has long been known for his innovative dramatic structures. He first showcased this proclivity with "Norman," which consists of three separate works ("Table Manners," "Living Together" and "Round and Round the Garden") featuring the same characters and taking place during one weekend at a home in the English countryside.

Set in three different areas of the house — you can guess the locations from the titles — the action of the plays overlaps. Scenes that take place offstage in one are fully seen in another, with the result an elaborately constructed theatrical mosaic. What's particularly ingenious is that each work stands on its own and that they can be seen in any order.

The plays all depict the less-than-honorable activities of Norman (Stephen Mangan), a licentious assistant librarian who during the course of the weekend attempts to seduce his two sisters-in-law even while his long-suffering wife, Ruth (Amelia Bullmore), is within shouting distance.

At first, his main target is Annie (Jessica Hynes), who is more than ready to join him for an illicit getaway because her relationship with Tom (Ben Miles), a nebbishy veterinarian and confirmed bachelor, seems to be going nowhere. When that plan doesn't work out, Norman sets his sights on the abrasive Sarah (Amanda Root), whose marriage to Reg (Paul Ritter) has lost its spark.

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.

Any of the individual plays is well worth seeing, but to truly magnify your enjoyment, try to see one of the marathons, in which all of the works are performed on one day. By the end of this exhilarating experience, you'll fully understand the concept of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. (partialdiff)