note: entire contents copyright 2010 by Sheila Barth
Everybody loves a good laugh, especially when it’s a well-written British farce with a ridiculous plot and outrageous characters. And Gloucester Stage Company’s production of Sir Alan Ayckbourn’s comical play, “Table Manners,” the first of the “Norman Conquests” trilogy written in 1973, is riotously funny. The fractured family farce currently appearing in picturesque Gloucester through July 3, rivals its British counterparts, winning accolades from critics and audiences here.
Artistic Director-Director Eric Engel and his all-star, accomplished cast easily pull off the mania in this hyperbolic, incredulous comedy about a dysfunctional, dispassionate group of siblings, spouses and insignificant other. Ayckbourn’s trilogy of plays, though not necessarily related, but centering around a single house and occupants, each takes place in a different area of the home. “Table Manners” occurs around the dining room table, where this motley group eats meals, but serves an extra helping of sarcasm and surprising antics, frequently causing the audience to erupt with laughter. This excellent cast adds a gourmet touch, with its split-second comedic timing and defining body language.
Popular versatile Boston actor Steven Barkhimer, (who has played everything from a toad, Shakespearean roles, ruthless businessman and much more), is hilarious- a deliciously mischievous leprechaun - as Norman, whose wife, Ruth, dismisses and ignores him with a wave of her self-impressed entrepreneurial hand. Norman has his own methods of averting his wife’s rejection. He hits on her sister and sister-in-law, under the guise of “just wanting to make them happy.” annoyingly strutting, leaping, sauntering, singing off- and on-stage to gain attention, while dressing outrageously to keep the spotlight on him. Ruth is portrayed by Jennie Israel, who replaced Lynn native-multi-award winner Paula Plum, wife of co-star Richard Snee, who is portraying Ruth’s brother Reg. Plum had to bow out three weeks before opening, due to another commitment. There’s no worries here, though, since Israel plays her role with such offhandedness, we wonder if Ruth deserves Norman’s infidelity, and whether he’s doing these antics to gain her attention. She flicks him off like an annoying flea or troublesome child trying desperately to create “shock and awe,” which Norman promises he’ll deliver if and when his sisters-in-law have an affair with him.
Meanwhile, Annie, stay-at-home, earthy-grungy, unkempt youngest sister with the unpopular task of caring for her bedridden mother, has already succumbed to Norman’s enticements, shocking the rest of the family. Alas, she can’t get rise out of her next-door, longtime, shy veterinarian - and totally clueless - longtime boyfriend, Tom, though. Scenes between Sarah Newhouse as Annie and Barlow Adamson as Tom are emotionally painful, yet touching, as she tries desperately to evoke Tom’s affection. Although Tom lunges at Norman and punches him for taking advantage of Annie, he shyly ambles away, without fulfilling her hopes for romance.
Reg and his uptight, orderly wife, Sarah, had come home to relieve Annie of her homebound duties and give her a weekend away, perhaps with Tom. Instead, the table turns on them.
Snee is delightfully sarcastic throughout, his laughter, scorn, and indulgence toward his prissy, by-the-rules wife, Sarah, divine. Hollywood movie-stage-TV actress Lindsay Crouse, who summers in Gloucester, is the glue that holds this middle class, suburban, diverse cast of characters together, with her stoic attempts at maintaining order and discipline; but she ultimately fails. As Sarah’s frustration with the group mounts,Crouse is magnificent as she presses forth, attempting to maintain civility.
Jenna McFarland Lord’s dining room set is appropriately fraying at the edges - like Sarah’s sense of dignity and nerves.
BOX INFO: Two-act play written by Sir Alan Ayckbourn, directed by Gloucester Stage Co. Artistic Director Eric Engel, starring Lindsay Crouse; appearing through July 3, at 267 East Main St., Gloucester. Performances are Thursday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Saturday matinee, 3 p.m.; Sunday, 4 p.m. Saturday, July 3, at 7:30 p.m., an Evening of Theatre and Fireworks, with post-show party and viewing of Gloucester fireworks; no performance July 4. Tickets are $37; seniors, students, $32. Call 978-281-4433 or visit www.gloucesterstage.org.