Living Together Opens at Northern Stage
Picture that modern tableau where everyone in the family is sitting in the living room, ignoring each other, their eyes glued to the screens of individual electronic devices. That is the antithesis of what's happening on the stage of The Norman Conquests: Living Together. These characters are engaged with one another so intensely that they sometimes have to retreat to their corners to fidget, in endless ways, with old magazines. Not even a television for respite. It's not necessarily a good thing. If hell is other people for the weekend, they might all be living in Alan Ayckbourn's play. Here is an introduction: the controlling Sarah and her lame, game inventor husband Reg, the sweet but so-dim-he-needs-to-be-schooled-in-knock-knock-jokes Tom, the depressed and smarmy Norman, and the dutiful and slightly disheveled Annie. Mother, upstairs and offstage, has taken to her bed while remaining "mad for the feel of manly hands." Norman's wife Ruth is a voice on the phone until her appearance in the second act. The plot is typical sex farce. Reg, Annie, and Ruth are siblings. Sarah and Reg have arrived at the family country house to give Annie a break from the care of Mother. Norman, married to the absent Ruth, is a librarian (presumably attending a professional conference) who plans to take Annie away for a weekend romp; the plans are thwarted. Norman's all-around intrafamilial lust--an ill-kept secret--propels the action and the laughs.If you like British comedy, salted with British-isms like "the dog's kennel," "dirty weekend" "have a go," and "it's just not on," you'll chuckle as you sit back and watch the family disintegration in the living room. The acting is superb, as is the physical comedy. Richard Gallagher as Norman is a convincing drunk as he dances his way from tipsy to dead weight spread over the floor. Caitlin Clouthier sends out her brittle, control-freak vibe by never relaxing a muscle. You will not soon forget Mark Light-Orr's impression of a bishop's diagonal walk. The set by designer David L. Arsenault, described as a "brown museum," is actually quite lush, minus the skeevy and significant little square of shag carpeting. Underneath the comedy and the Rat Pack music, one wonders what point Ayckbourn is trying to make. Happiness is elusive, even as the characters sometimes question what it means. Marriage seems an impossible construct that is at best endurable and endured. Norman, as odious as he may be, injects something, however dubious the quality, into the lives of the three female characters. If you are Annie contemplating life with Tom as he meticulously adds lump after lump of sugar to his coffee, or Sarah, as she reluctantly suffers another of Reg's board game creations, you can begin to understand why Norman becomes a plausible if fleeting choice. The most intriguing aspect of this play for me is the structure of the trilogy. Living Together takes place in the living room, the second play, Table Manners, is staged in the dining room, and the third, Round and Round the Garden, is set in the garden of the same house, over the same weekend. There are delicious hints woven into this first play of what one might expect in the two that follow. Some of the characters in Living Together, for example, slip off into the dining room from time to time; muffled voices can be heard. More than one character gazes from the living room through the window to the garden. What are they looking at? That the hints are never entirely clear make them all the more tantalizing. The entire trilogy is seldom performed. Northern Stage, the Dorset Theater Festival, and the Weston Playhouse are involved in an historic collaboration. Living Together will run at the Barrette Center in White River Junction until May 8. Table Manners begins at Dorset on June 16, followed by Round and Round the Garden at the Weston beginning on July 21. Same cast, same creative team. Northern Stage has a party bus at your disposal for transportation to other venues. (Contact them for details.) Should you see all three? In a review of an earlier 2009 production on Broadway, no less than Ben Brantley claimed that if you see all three, "you win big." Brantley saw the seven-hour trilogy in one day; he said, it ". . . allowed me the luxurious privilege of getting to know characters in a way that only fat novels allow." Are you game? You don't want to miss anything, do you? You can sign up to receive an email notification every time I post something new to this blog, ArtfulEdge, by clicking here. For a short link to all of my previous blog posts, click here. Top photo: Actors Mark Light-Orr, David Mason, Jenni Putney, and Caitlin Clouthier. All photos by Rob Strong, used with permission of Northern Stage.