Stephen Mangan, a 2009 Tony nominee in the category of Featured Actor in a Play for the triptych by Alan Ayckbourn, agrees that Norman is a man batting his wings up against the cage of society's norms in the time of the play, circa 1974, when the sexual revolution threatened to engulf people — or pass them by.
"He would really love to be a hippie," Mangan says of Norman, whose shaggy beard and crazy mane suggest as much. "England was not a sexually adventurous — not openly, anyway — place in the early '70s, it was very repressed. We're known for our repression. So Norman is there openly telling women that he loves them. In many ways that's the secret to being a womanizer, just letting people know! Norman is so desperate for contact. I don't think he's a bad man. I think he believes when he's with each woman that he really does love them."
The plays premiered in the U.K. in 1973 and for this 2008 London revival — now transferred, cast intact, to Broadway's Circle in the Square Theatre — director Matthew Warchus kept the setting in period, which seems to heighten the loneliness of the six characters who spend a weekend together.
"We did a lot of research on that period, the early '70s," Mangan says. "It's amazing how many parallels there are to now. Especially in Britain. The '70s were a time of dire economic strife, people were very worried about the economy. The plays have kept their relevance to today. We've had a lot of people come and watch these plays and don't realize they're set 35 years ago; they just think Reg [played by fellow Tony nominee Paul Ritter] likes to wear very tight trousers."
"In fact, he refers to himself as a 'kept man,'" Mangan says.
Does Mangan create a "back story" for his character?
"I always thought that he probably had a lot of older siblings, that he was the youngest by maybe ten years — so he got a lot of love," Mangan says, suggesting the adult Norman has a constant need for that attention — that contact — to continue.
He says, "All the characters in the play are desperate for contact. Annie is the sort of emotional center of the play. She's stuck at home and has two men to choose from: one [a taciturn veterinarian named Tom, played by Ben Miles] has emotional constipation, one [Norman] has emotional diarrhea. I think the play is about the damaging effects of both those kinds of approaches. A man who cannot express his feelings is as damaging as a man who tells everyone he loves them."
Yesterday's clowning hedonist might be called something different if the Norman plays were written today.
"Nowadays he'd probably be defined a as a sex addict," Mangan says. "He'd probably be on some sort of medication, or in some sort of program. There's a very dark side to Norman. He's covering a vast hole with all that exuberance and energy."
The Norman Conquests, now in a limited run on Broadway, received seven Tony Award nominations, including: Best Revival of a Play, Featured Actor in a Play (Stephen Mangan, Paul Ritter), Featured Actress in a Play (Jessica Hynes, Amanda Root), Direction of a Play (Matthew Warchus), Scenic Design of a Play (Rob Howell).
To view Playbill.com's earlier Brief Encounter interview with Stephen Mangan, in which he discusses the rigors of working on the three Norman plays (Table Manners, Living Together, Round and Round the Garden) at once, click here.
For more information, visit http://www.normanconquestsonbroadway.com.