PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: The Norman Conquests — The In-Laws and the Outlaw

News   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: The Norman Conquests — The In-Laws and the Outlaw
The Norman Conquests, which began laying waste to American masses at Broadway's Circle in the Square April 23, is smart Brit talk for the old rooster-in-the-henhouse roundelay.
The Norman Conquests stars Stephen Mangan, Amelia Bullmore and Jessica Hynes; guests Gina Gershon, Alan Cumming and Swoosie Kurtz
The Norman Conquests stars Stephen Mangan, Amelia Bullmore and Jessica Hynes; guests Gina Gershon, Alan Cumming and Swoosie Kurtz Photo by Aubrey Reuben

The randy cock in question is a shaggy-haired, shabbily attired assistant librarian, Norman (Stephen Mangan), a self-deluded bloke who fancies himself God's Gift to Women and drives everybody around him to nutty distraction trying to prove it. During a long, lost, wifeless weekend at her mother's place in the country, this lothario-on-the-loose makes an amorous beeline to his sister-in-law, Annie (Jessica Hynes), then starts buzzing around her sister-in-law, Sarah (Amanda Root), and eventually breaks into an unbridled flash of passion with his brother-in-law, Reg (Paul Ritter).

Soon, time and the wife — Ruth (Amelia Bullmore) — are called, and Ruth tries to rein in the notorious Norman, who enters an innocent, can't-help-it plea. "I'm just . . . magnetic or something," he shrugs hopelessly. By actual count, only one character in the play escapes Norman's clutches — Annie's decidedly thick suitor, Tom (Ben Miles), a small-town vet — but he's such a dim-bulb individual nobody could turn him on, although Ruth certainly gives his circuit a workout.

The architect of this dizzy-making marriage-go-round could only be the prodigiously prolific Alan Ayckbourn, who has written 73 plays in his 70 years.

The action above constitutes the plot of all three plays that make up The Norman Conquests and occur during the same July family gathering. The one difference is that the three plays (each with two acts, insidiously in synch by Ayckbourn to come before or directly after the action in the other two plays) occur in different settings and the characters shed new psychic skins and idiosyncrasies.

Table Manners takes place around the dinner table of the Victorian home of a bedridden, mercifully never-seen matriarch. Living Room moves her kids along to the living room where they attempt board games while imbibing in a variety of will-weakening wines (dandelion, carrot and the dreaded parsnips). Round and Round the Garden takes the action outside for some heretofore untapped roughhousing. Ayckbourn keeps the action flowing with the precision of a Navy Blue Angels flight formation, and, ultimately, all three plays craftily fit together like a Rubik's Cube. Each is written as a self-contained piece and can be taken as such, or, if you care to look around the corner to what else is going on, the author can gleefully oblige. The recommended dose is all three in one big gulp on a Saturday or Sunday marathon run. [For the record, the play seen on the official opening night April 23 was Round and Round the Garden.]

On the evidence of these three plays — and God of Carnage — director Matthew Warchus qualifies as a master manipulator of ensembles, skillfully steering the two couples in Yasmina Reza's play and the three couples in Ayckbourn's trio. Indeed, he is beginning to loom like his own strongest Tony competition for Best Director.

"Well, I do like comedy," director Warchus was quick to confess — and quick to qualify: "But I try to find the type of comedy that actually feels truthful and says something about life. I am not a big gag person, but I do love comic situations."

His four most conspicuous cases-in-point — "The Normans" and God of Carnage are now playing, so parallels are inevitable. "Certainly, I do think that the plays — The Norman Conquests and God of Carnage — are kinda distant cousins of each other. In 1973 when The Norman Conquests was written and two years ago when God of Carnage was written, the styles of theatre changed definitely, but both writers have a strangely cruel and compassionate observation of life — marriage and relationships, particularly — and somehow both plays, although full of sadness (savagery, actually) in amongst the hilarity, are very healing or semi-uplifting on the subject of relationships. It's like a raft with wounded survivors on it on display. The stage is a sort of an island of agony and ecstasy floating in the middle of this audience. The characters are all desperate, absolutely at the end of their rope — very much like Chekhov's characters, in fact. That's how he constructed his characters."

Warchus employs his performers like paint brushes to get the big picture he wants. "They are great actors," he didn't hesitate to say. "The most crucial part of putting together The Norman Conquests was actually the casting process. It took a long time to find the right people. It's like a chemistry experiment — putting together different elements. When the casting was finalized, I knew the rehearsals would be great."

He claimed no pet performance with the results. "I've sympathy with all of the characters. I end up empathizing with everybody so I don't have much objectivity."

He pooh-poohed the notion that the three plays were "too British" for American audiences (as if the gales of giggling colonialists didn't already refute that enough).

"We changed nothing. We talked about cutting one line, but in the end we left it in." The line under fire? "Anyway, Hyde Park isn't country. It's just an underground car-park with grass roots." Explained the director: "We thought that was just vamping on information that would mean nothing to people, but we left it in anyway."

Ayckbourn, laid low by a stroke but writing again, attended the premiere of the plays' revival last year at The Old Vic. "Apparently," said Warchus, "he loved it. He told me he loved how seriously I'd taken it. That was a nice thing to hear."

The site picked for the after-party, Arena on West 41st, couldn't be more removed from the sedate English countryside of the plays — even one where Norman is running hilariously amok. You could get the bends coming down from that civilized high to this raucous, cramped little club — a point reiterated by the constant blare of musical noise that made conversation — and press interviews — an ordeal. This was the ambience in which the six-pack of Broadway debuters met the fourth estate.

Off stage, Miles is still saucer-eyed with what might be wonderment, but he checked his stupid at the door. Playing the slow-on-the-uptake country vet, who has yet to marry into this dysfunctional circus but is making fumbling headway in that direction with Annie, the actor clearly relished the work — and even the role.

"There are a lot of guys like that out there," Miles insisted. "Back in England when we did it, there was a whole league of people who would come backstage and say things like, 'I'm really glad there's somebody like that on stage.' It's as if they'd found a spokesperson. That was really bizarre. I guess I could start a Tom Fan Club."

Rehearsals for the show started in July of last year, so the company will have been together just over a year by the time the engagement ends at Circle in the Square.

[flipbook] "There are loads of favorite moments in this for me," admitted Miles, "but I think, probably in hindsight, that my most favorite moment will be when I was offered the job, when I said, 'Yeah,' because it has been such fun to do. It really has.

"There's so much to see in these plays. That's why it works for people who come back again and again to see — even the same show. People come back, having seen the others to get more from the original one that they saw. You got kinda groups of people who have their favorite shows. You get Garden people. You get Table people. You get Living Room people. It breeds a real sense of loyalty, these shows."

Tom is the only character in the play who gets away unkissed by Norman, but the actor who plays Norman, Mangan, insisted on partial credit: "Well, I do suck Tom's thumb," he offered as a qualifier, "so everyone gets a bit of Norman in these plays."

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Mangan has come closer to Broadway than any of his co-stars. "I did Much Ado About Nothing ten years ago at BAM with Cheek by Jowl as part of a world tour. We played Moscow, Paris, Barcelona, London, Sweden and New York, and New York was by far our best audience. They were the smartest, most generous. I've been trying to get back here since then." Now, he has. Happily, BAM does not a Broadway debut make. "I lost my Broadway virginity tonight." More seriously, he continued: "Playing on Broadway matters a huge amount to me. It has always been one of my biggest ambitions my whole life to do this, so tonight I've achieved that. I'm beside myself with excitement, I really am. To come here with a production that I am so proud of and really love doing is the icing on the cake."

And he has a randy-dandy role to debut in, warts and all present and accounted for. Norman, as a hedonist-in-heat, is a curiously likable chap, but he still creates all manner of tragicomic problems for everybody that he encounters. "That can be hard sometimes," admitted Mangan. "He has a self-confidence, especially in those shorts, that I don't especially have myself. He's a man just trying to connect with people, and he's so desperate to do it. He really does. It is: 'I Just Want To Make You Happy.'"

That line, yelled like "Steeeeellla!" at the end of one play, is the rule Norman lives by, and it has been emblazoned on T-shirts peddled by the theatre's marketing people.

"Norman's so desperate to be liked and to make connections — and, yes, sexual connections with the women. His vulnerability to love — he needs to have that because audiences could tire of him. Nobody likes a smart-aleck for too long. He's so multi-dimensioned. He's a brilliantly written part, and hats off to Alan Ayckbourn for writing it. It's a spectacular, hilarious, touching and deeply human set of plays."

As Norman's workaholic, profoundly myopic and extravagantly tolerant wife, Bullmore has to work double-time to make her character convincingly blasé about her hubby's extracurricular, in-family high-jinx. "Well, I hope this is what Ayckborn meant to write," she preambled before launching into her take on the part. "What I get from Ruth is: Actually, Norman is an incredibly interesting, exciting man, and she chose him kind of as an act of rebellion, but he is the opposite of a boring husband. It nearly kills her being married to him, but I think there must be something — some fundamental attraction that she cannot kick — so I think they fight and they make love, and it's a very, very tempestuous, exhausting thing, but they're kind of stuck with it. I think that she thinks he's the most interesting man in the world — and the most impossible man in the world. That's how I get into her head.

"I think they spar. I think some marriages are competitive, and I think marital partners compete to be top dog the whole time. Every conversation is a kind of battle, but, in a way, they're into that. People get off on that. You know, the only time they really agree is when they kiss. I don't think they ever agree verbally. The two moments in the plays when Ruth and Norman are in agreement are nonverbal."

Her spinster sister, Annie — the first in line for Norman-conquering — gets a positive, sympathetic depiction from Hynes. "I'll tell you what's wrong with her: She's a people-pleaser. She does that to the detriment of everything in her life. What I like about her is that she has got a good heart. She's not a mean, malicious person. She has actually tried to do the right thing her whole life. She has tried to make everybody happy really, all her life — to a degree, and she's left slightly nowhere."

With a dull suitor on her hands and an invalid mother always draining her from off-stage, she finds Norman's suggestion of running off to a hotel in a nearby village a very do-able thing, and she confesses this to her sister-in-law, Sarah — next in line for Norman-conquering — who vows not to be shocked but is and then partakes herself.

"She's a hypocrite at the end of the day," assessed Root, the actress playing Sarah, who advocates the civilized decorum at first, and, when that doesn't work, she jumps in and brawls with the best of 'em. In that very funny 360-degree about-face, she is deliciously echoing what Marcia Gay Harden is delivering in God of Carnage.

"I have a huge amount of fun," said Root. "Sometimes, I feel that she's obviously a Catholic. She's a particular kind of character, and audiences will respond to her in a particular way. She's not necessarily the most likable character, but she's the character who's going to stir everything up because she is, after all, The Moral Core.

"She's got to go on and fight for that. However, she's a very mixed-up lady and has a lot of sadness, if you like, in her own heart. Her marriage isn't very happy, so she's going to come into problems — especially with someone like Norman around. She's very set for a catastrophic weekend. I think they all are. They're all at that point."

Root was previously in New York 14 years ago, premiering "Persuasion," a Jane Austen movie from England. "This is my first time here properly, my first time working here, my first time on Broadway," she itemized. "It's surreal. I think it will probably hit me in a day or two. You can't quite take it in — and particularly when you have a job to do. The dressing room was full of flowers and gifts. And to be honest, I've got to do my hair. I've got to get my makeup off because, as part of these things, I've got to focus. There's no point in getting carried away with it now."

Her favorite moments are centrally located — "probably moments that aren't very relevant to the play. There are certain moments that I love playing with Paul Ritter, who plays my husband. But I just love doing it all. The language is so fantastic."

Ritter chivalrously returned the compliment. His favorite, he said, "is a very subtle physical moment — the look that Amanda Root (as Sarah) gives Stephen Mangan (as Norman) when he congratulates her on the preparation of the lettuce. He says, 'This lettuce is superb.' And the tremulous look of pride and suppressed passion that Amanda Root gives Stephen across the table is my favorite moment in the show."

He subscribed to the three-in-a-day approach to The Norman Conquests. "We're going to do a triple Saturday and a triple Sunday, one after the other in the coming weeks, so that'll be a challenge. That'll be a real challenge." And will six ambulances be lined up after the show? "I hope so," he jested. Actually, in truth: "You develop the muscles. It's like training. It's like a distance race. Your voice muscles, your physical muscles — they build up. There's no mystery to it. Just takes a bit of practice."

The marathon is the only way to go, he contended. "That's the way to do it. You find you get to know the people next to you over the course of the day. And the audience, particularly at marathons, are a tremendous presence and become great friends."

The starriest person associated with this production is the artistic director of the Old Vic Theatre Company, Kevin Spacey, and he is the one who has rushed into the spotlight to publicize the show. "In a way," said the two-time Oscar winner and one-time Tony winner, "I felt I had to because this company of actors — as brilliant as they are — are just not known here, so it takes a little while to convince the networks to put them on TV. So, if I can go out there and start the ball rolling and hope that if the reviews that came in tonight were great — and they are great — then now they're going to get discovered, and they won't need me anymore, and I'll go home."

Home, now, is London and The Old Vic. "We've only brought Moon for the Misbegotten here and now this, and the two Sam Mendes-directed Bridge Projects which were just at BAM and are headed to the Vic now." [Both he and Mendes won Oscars for "American Beauty."] "We've got a lot more plans to bring more work over, over the next number of years." Any little role for the artistic director? "We're about to announce our sixth season of work at the end of May, and there may be some news then, but at the moment I'm not at liberty to talk about it."

In a career-combo only an Olivier could master, Spacey wears well the hats of theatre executive and practicing film actor. "It really isn't hard to do," he advanced. "You have to look at it this way: Even if the Old Vic didn't exist, I'd be lucky to do two or three movies a year that I liked and wanted to do. I did three last year. I'm doing two this year. I could work in a lot of crappy movies, but I don't want to do that. I want to work in good movies and movies I'm interested in. It really hasn't changed that much. The only change is my availability which is now dictated by my theatre work."

"Men Who Stare at Goats" is his next flick, due out in December, co-starring George Clooney, Ewan McGregor and Jeff Bridges. "Essentially, it's about the people in the U.S. military who believe that they can use psychic techniques in order to conquer the enemy, and they begin by whether or not they can stop the heart of a goat by just staring at it. It might be the first comedy to come out of the Iraq war."

Other stars on hand included Gina Gershon (the Italian stewardess of Boeing-Boeing, who arrived in character — by plane — to be Warchus' date for the evening), Alan Cumming, composer David Cornue (Smoking Bloomberg) and wife Milena Govich of "Law and Order," Swoosie Kurtz ("returning to the scene of many crimes here at Circle in the Square" — crimes like Tony-nominated performances in Tartuffe and Frozen), Cote de Pablo (beginning a big theatre bender, having wrapped yesterday her sixth season of "NCIS"), Kate Burton (trilling over the Elliot Norton Award nominations that went to her, her son Morgan Ritchie, director Nicholas Martin and their revival of The Corn Is Green, written by Burton's godfather, Emlyn Williams — and lamenting New York hasn't got a place for it right now "and Morgan is growing older as we speak") and playwright John Guare. Among the show's credited 17 producers, Michael Filerman brought screenwriter Susan Rice (whose Hallmark movie with Cybill Shepherd, "Mrs. Washington Goes to Smith," will air Aug. 7), and Jamie deRoy came with writer-director Barry Kleinbort (who leaves April 28 for Paris to put together a musical, half in French, half in English called Metropolitain).

That lovely, Tony-winning loon, Julie White, was asked at intermission what role she's like to play in The Norman Conquests. She didn't hesitate a beat: "NORMAN!"

The cast of <I>The Norman Conquests</I> on opening night
The cast of The Norman Conquests on opening night
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