“Oh” is not widely acknowledged as one of the funniest words in English. Nor does the simple “aah” generally induce convulsive giggles. Yet these unassuming monosyllables acquire brute force in the topping, London-born revival of Alan Ayckbourn’s “Norman Conquests,” crippling you with laughter that shakes the body and, more subversively, fractures the soul.
The response these words elicit is in inverse proportion to the volume at which they are spoken. They are usually uttered quietly, as reflexively as you or I might say them in the course of an average day. But “oh” and “aah” are stealth killers — variously packed with surprise, disappointment, anger, triumph and confusion — in the context of the trilogy of plays now in giddy rotation at the Circle in the Square. And they keep gathering strength during the seven speeding hours it takes to perform Mr. Ayckbourn’s three comedies, first staged in the early 1970s and looking younger and healthier than ever in the production that opened Thursday night.
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. These include the recently opened “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” “reasons to be pretty,” “Next to Normal,” “Mary Stuart” and Mr. Warchus’s production of “God of Carnage,” which in its fiercely comic depiction of toxic families bears a passing resemblance to “Conquests.”
But the show that pairs off most naturally with Mr. Ayckbourn’s trilogy is one that opened in the fall. That is (and no, I haven’t lost my mind) Ian Rickson’s transcendent interpretation of Chekhov’s “Seagull.” For in its impeccably natural portrayal of tales of ordinary misery, “Conquests” suggests nothing so much as Chekhov pumped full of nitrous oxide. Like “The Seagull” it is built on one of the wonderful paradoxes of theater: deeply unhappy people can generate profound happiness in audiences allowed to eavesdrop on their lives.
Throughout his prolific career Mr. Ayckbourn has more traditionally been characterized as a British Neil Simon, whipping up one hit sitcom after another. That was pretty much how I felt when, as a student, I first saw “The Norman Conquests” on Broadway in 1976, with a cast that included Richard Benjamin, Paula Prentiss and Estelle Parsons. I thought it was mildly funny but kind of lame. Asked to rank it in relation to “All in the Family” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” I would have given it a distant third.
I have grown to appreciate Mr. Ayckbourn more, partly from having the chance to see his work with British casts who plug into his rhythms with an ease that eludes most American actors. But after seeing this “Conquests,” I’m moving Mr. Ayckbourn into my private V.I.P. lounge of contemporary playwrights, to join, among others, Harold Pinter, August Wilson, Caryl Churchill and David Mamet. The story of a philandering loser and the lives he brightens and smudges, “Conquests” finds Mr. Ayckbourn manipulating the conventions of theater with an abstract mathematician’s cold genius and a poet’s broken heart.
I’m surprised by my own assessment. “Conquests” is of an era (the 1970s) and a genre (the sex farce) I have little innate fondness for. The setup, which would seem to invite mostly smirks, is established anew in all three plays, which cover the same time period in different settings: “Table Manners” (set in a dining room), “Living Together” (a living room) and “Round and Round the Garden” (guess).
Norman (Stephen Mangan), an assistant librarian with unruly hair and manners to match, arrives to run away for a “dirty weekend” with the downtrodden Annie (Jessica Hynes), who for years has been trapped taking care of her invalid mother in a big Victorian house in the country. Without revealing her real plans, Annie has enlisted her brother, Reg (Paul Ritter), and his wife, Sarah (Amanda Root), to look after the tyrannical (and never seen) Mum.
Annie and Norman would have both left someone behind: Tom (Ben Miles), the veterinarian who is Annie’s kind-of boyfriend, and Ruth (Amelia Bullmore), Annie’s sister and Norman’s wife. It isn’t giving away too much to reveal that Annie and Norman’s weekend never happens. Well it does, but it happens at Annie’s house and involves every one of the people just mentioned.
Does this description sound familiar? I mean, the part about out-of-town visitors descending on a resentful homebody in the country. That’s the starting point in at least three Chekhov plays, “The Seagull,” “Uncle Vanya” and “The Cherry Orchard.” And Mr. Ayckbourn, like Chekhov, mines the explosive potential of irritable, dissatisfied and restlessly bored people in close quarters. Explosions of lust, anger and fed-up exasperation all occur.
But it’s the sense of fraught emotions percolating beneath the surface that makes Mr. Warchus’s production feel so eye-openingly ordinary. You know what it’s like when grown-up family members reunite, when simple domestic tasks like setting the table, seating a dinner party, washing the dishes or playing a board game become occasions for quick (and instantly repressed) flare-ups. The hostility behind such outbursts would be scary if it weren’t so damn funny.
Mr. Ayckbourn takes artful advantage of the plays’ time period, the height of the sexual revolution, to probe the discontented wistfulness of his self-involved characters. (Rob Howell’s designs capture both the unfortunate fashion sense of that era and the classical shabbiness of a long-neglected family homestead.) The prospect of a “dirty weekend” becomes a glimpse of paradise, because it offers the fantasy of escape from a no-exit world of monotony. When the characters in “Norman” are asked if they’re happy, a typical response goes like this: “Yes. Mostly. Occasionally. Now and then. I don’t know.”
That’s how Sarah answers the question, but it could be any of the others. Except that it couldn’t, because everyone here, while cut from the same cloth of loneliness and selfishness, is so achingly individual, from the way they wear their hair to how they kiss (which, under Mr. Warchus’s direction becomes a comedy of biological improbabilities).
Ms. Hynes’s frowsy, brusque Annie; Ms. Root’s thin-lipped controlling Sarah; Mr. Ritter’s passive, clownish Reg; Mr. Miles’s slow-thinking, stoical Tom; and Ms. Bullmore’s brittle, disaffected Ruth: all are as vivid as your own family at breakfast on the vacation from hell. Mr. Mangan’s oversexed-sheepdoglike Norman is magnetic to them all because he is their unedited ids incarnate: narcissistic, longing to dominate and oh so hungry for attention and affection.
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.
Ruth, who is seriously nearsighted but refuses to wear her glasses, says testily to her husband: “I can see as well as you. It’s only people I sometimes can’t see very clearly.” This is a condition shared by all the characters in “The Norman Conquests.” But you, lucky theatergoer, will see them with 20-20 vision. That’s guaranteed by each of the plays. Go to all three, and you’ll be thinking you have Superman’s X-ray eyes.
Woody Allen in his prime was a great proponent of the theory that comedies should do the job in 90 minutes. Thankfully, Alan Ayckbourn must have missed that memo. Over seven hours of hilarious peaks and contemplative valleys, his 1973 trilogy "The Norman Conquests" delivers more laughs than ought to be legal while steadily expanding our perspective on the needling dissatisfaction beneath the comic chaos of his characters' lives. There's no such lack of audience fulfillment in the richly rewarding revival transferring from London's Old Vic, its structural ingenuity matched by an exceptional cast and by the supple modulations of Matthew Warchus' direction.
Ayckbourn is the preeminent miniaturist of British middle-class life, and designer Rob Howell echoes that approach. The stage is canopied by a detailed model of an idyllic home-counties village, which doubles as a clock during scene changes. Adopting the playwright's favored setup, the theater has been reconfigured for in-the-round staging, intensifying the sense of ordinary folks under a microscope, helpless to escape psychological scrutiny.
The interlocking plays all unfold over the same July weekend, chronicling simultaneous or sequential action in, respectively, the dining room, living room and garden of the family home. While they can be appreciated singly or in any order, the designated opener is "Table Manners," which broadly outlines the weekend's events.
Henpecked Reg (Paul Ritter) and his overbearing wife Sarah (Amanda Root) arrive to give mopey Annie (Jessica Hynes) a weekend off from caring for their invalid mother. But it takes Sarah no time to extract the truth: Tired of waiting for painfully shy suitor Tom (Ben Miles) to make a move, Annie has planned a clandestine weekend away with brother-in-law Norman (Stephen Mangan). Acting as much out of jealousy as propriety, Sarah convinces Annie this would be a mistake, summoning Norman's career-driven wife Ruth (Amelia Bullmore) to deal with the fallout.
After last season's "Boeing-Boeing," Warchus again exhibits a master touch with comedy, even if he may be courting trouble from the Defense of Marriage Act. First with the caustic "God of Carnage," now with the barbed assault of Ayckbourn's triptych, the director pretty much shreds the notion of connubial bliss. The characters often frown in bewildered condescension at the idea of anyone wanting to spend time alone, yet it's clear coupledom offers them more aggravation than joy.
That paradox is amplified by the play's offstage monster, a bedridden mother whose serial man-chasing pained her late husband. "Her life was centered 'round men, wasn't it?" observes Annie. "When they lost interest in her, she lost interest in herself."
Root's meddling prude initially dominates, but all six characters accrue layer upon layer of complexity to dig beneath the Brit-sitcom stereotypes.
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.
Initially put-upon and mousy, Hynes' Annie grows more empathetic as her resentment erupts. Bullmore has a choice way with a withering deadpan, her myopic Ruth emerging as the shrewdest observer. Root's abrasive Sarah is as amusing in her self-righteous efficiency as she is touching in her loneliness. Gesticulating and quipping like a bad gameshow host, Ritter exposes the unhappy adolescent inside Reg by infinitesimal degrees. And Miles makes Tom's awkwardness simultaneously irritating and endearing.
The catalyst is Norman, a clowning Casanova who swindles even himself into believing he just wants to make everyone happy. Played with ripe verbal and physical comedy skills by Mangan, Norman aims his shaggy charms at Annie, Sarah, his jaded wife and even Reg. Out of the entire sextet, he's the one most actively chafing against the numbness; he's a weapon of crass seduction who jolts everyone out of their careful composure.
"I've been piecing things together in my mind, fitting the various bits to fill in the picture, building a sort of overall view of things," says Tom near the end of nominal closer "Round and Round the Garden." While the dim-bulb vet may be several beats behind the rest of us, he effectively encapsulates the pleasure of unlocking Ayckbourn's intricate puzzle. It's like a Rubik's Cube with humor and heart.