If you see only one comedy this summer, take the trip north for Gloucester Stage’s hilarious ROUND AND ROUND THE GARDEN (playing through July 1st). If you’re an Alan Ayckbourn fan, you simply can’t miss it. GARDEN is the third play in Ayckbourn’s THE NORMAN CONQUESTS trilogy to be mounted by Gloucester Stage. (If you have access to a time machine, use it to see last summer’s production and use it again to see the previous summer’s installation.)
Here’s the vitally important bit. You need not experience the other two for the third to work its magic. Ayckbourn has fashioned each play to stand alone. THE NORMAN CONQUESTS all center about Norman, an infuriating sadsack with an innate ability to charm even his severest critic. Until I saw the Gloucester productions, I thought no Norman could surpass Tom Conti’s performance (at the Old Vic). Steven Barkhimer has. He is wildly, “strangely engaging” as the incorrigible Norman, the rumpled librarian whose comeuppance is overdue. You almost can’t believe his luck as he worms his way into every female’s good graces.
Here’s Eric C. Engel’s genius. He’s brought the same cast back each year (with one small change this summer). The ensemble is incomparable. Their timing is exquisite. The comedy is sublime. Barlow Adamson makes Tom a delightful dolt. One thing you can bank on. When he says he’s gotten the drift of the situation, he hasn’t. Sarah Newhouse gives a touching performance as the daughter who has sacrificed to care for her difficult mother. (We hear how difficult when Newhouse deliciously mimics the old gal!)
Richard Snee is wonderfully droll as her distracted brother, come to take on mother duty for a weekend. It’s no wonder he tries not to pay attention when his formidable wife (Lindsay Crouse at her kid glove, ferocious best) takes over the house. He’s resigned himself to his lot. Of course the action spills over into the garden in this play, reaching fever pitch when Norman’s wife arrives. The part of Ruth has been played expertly by Jenny Israel but this summer Adrianne Krstransky takes over seamlessly, giving Norman’s nearsighted, long-suffering wife just the right edge of been-there-done-that. Her attempts to engage Adamson’s plodding Tom are delectable.
How can I pick my favorite moments? I’ll choose a directorial surprise to lure you, as it were, to Gloucester. When a drunken Norman is hauled out into the garden to sleep it off, he flips over like a dead fish. Just when you think you can’t laugh any more, he flips again. Engel and company find every opportunity for optimum pleasure and deft physical comedy.
The set itself is one of my favorite elements in this production. Jenna McFarland Lord’s sagging, pealing country house is perfection, right down to the brambles, moss and trellises. When Russ Swift lights it in sunshine, we all want to move there. Gail A. Buckley’s costumes beautifully match each personality, right down to Reg’s argyles. You just know from the socks that his wife dresses him and he’s long since ceased to object.
Oh, Ayckbourn would be so pleased.