Spouse swapping, drunken sing-alongs, mistaken identities (particularly when the mistaken are naked), and flying props are reliable staples of comedy. You can see all these done with great zeal and execution in Joking Apart Theater's production of The Norman Conquests. And that's if you see only one installment of the Alan Ayckbourn trilogy running through July 24. But don't shortchange yourself. The plays are a comic caper of desire, loneliness, and the ongoing quest for companionship, and the experience is best when you let the romp romp you over triply.
The story begins when Norman comes to collect his sister-in-law Annie for a "dirty weekend" in the country. Their dalliance is thwarted, however, when Annie's brother Reg and another sister-in-law, Sarah, arrive to housesit. With half-witted interference from Tom, Annie's would-be boyfriend, and the unexpected appearance of Ruth, Norman's wife and Annie's sister, the illicit rendezvous is canceled, replanned, reneged on, rerouted, and recast.
If Ayckbourn's work is sometimes accused of gimmicky plots and shortsighted theatricality (the Brit playwright writes most of his plays in two weeks or less), at least the hook he hangs his hat on in The Norman Conquests is a grand one. Each of the plays, Table Manners, Living Together, and Round and Round the Garden, takes place in a different room of the country house, while the three-day timeline is kept intact. Characters go from one room to the next, in one play to the next, trying either to escape someone or get into trouble with someone. Zach Curtis, Matt Sciple, and Craig Johnson direct the plays respectively and with remarkable continuity, though Johnson has paid a bit more attention to the physical details (a wristwatch here, a scooch of the chair there) that allow the actors to stagger between the broad and the genuine, the happy and the sad, the needed and the wanted.
Which they do without missing a step. Ayckbourn has structured scenes so that every imaginable combination of six characters is exploited, from a group dinner scene in Table Manners to a solitary search for quiet in Round and Round the Garden. When an ensemble is acting truly as an ensemble, it's an astonishing feat of rhythm, commitment, and mutual support (the doomed-from-the-start board game in Living Together is splendid hilarity).
But it's the two-character scenes that make this production a marvel. Neurotic Sarah (Corissa White) is hell-bent on keeping everything and everyone in their proper place, so when Annie (Karla Reck) divulges the identity of her weekend partner, White's taut frown and frantic furniture polishing nix the idea. When Annie whines, "But I wanted a holiday," Reck plays her with just enough pathos and slumping shoulders to make it heartbreaking, but doesn't overindulge.
David Tufford as Tom, the lumbering dolt who can't get it through his head that he should act on his feelings for Annie, achieves similar depth and warmth when he finally does get it through his head. Ruth (Heather Stone) catches Norman (Edwin Strout) red-handed with a paw on Sarah, and as she demands reckoning of her husband, Stone's attempts to control her character's fury are infused with curiosity, anguish, and compassion. She manages to make Ruth's rigidity positive as well as comical (a wider range than Ayckbourn seems to have given her), and allows us to see how Ruth can go from being enraged at Norman in one moment to being charmed by him in the next.
As the misunderstood and misunderstanding bed-hopper, Strout is skilled at playing both what is commendable about Norman ("I want to make you happy...") and what is reprehensible (he does--at others' expense). But whatever is loathsome about the man, Norman's inebriated cries for romance ring true, and Joking Apart's production can indeed make you happy.