Control Freak

Calling your trilogy of plays The Norman Conquests makes it sound like a medieval tryptich or Bayeux Tapestry illustrating the events of 1066: William the Conqueror storming across Hastings, lance lowered, the banner of destiny fluttering on its ­shaft.

But the Norman in Alan Ayckbourn’s trio isn’t a British legend, and his “conquests” won’t pave the way for the Magna Carta. He’s a lowly assistant librarian with “three emotions for every occasion.” Although he has a seduction compulsion, he’s at best a junior grade Don Juan. At worst, he’s infantile, sleazy, and his inner child’s a whiney brat. Potential lovers must verge on implosion to bat an eyelash his ­way.

The three plays take place during a weekend in July: from Saturday at 5:30 p.m. to Monday morning at nine. Ayckbourn, who called them his “most ambitious and, frankly, seemingly uncommercial project” ever, wrote “crosswise.” He began with scene one of Round and Round the Garden (Saturday at 5:30), then scene one of Table Manners (Saturday at 6:00 p.m.), then scene one of Living Together (Saturday at 6:30 p.m.): three plays, 12 scenes. “It was an odd experience writing them,” he said, “rather similar to Norman’s own, in fact. I found myself grappling with triplet sisters all with very different personalities.”

Ruth and Annie are sisters (Sarah is married to their brother, Reg). But like Chekhov’s famous Prozorov trio, the women are mired in such crashing-bore routines that — forget Moscow — even a trip to East Grinstead might be a boon, and Norman might seem an upgrade.

Annie, who has nurtured her sex-crazed (the female Norman?), now-bedridden mother for years, may settle for Tom. A vet, who can’t even lure a cat from a tree, passive Tom has a heart of gold and a mind of mush. Compared to him, Norman offers, if not improvement, at least the prospect of something different. But his downsides keep Annie wavering between the lesser of ­evils.

From afar, Annie’s gentle brother Reg looks like a keeper. He’s been faithful and true to Sarah, obeys her every demand... But Ruth calls Sarah a “martyr”; the more we see of boyish, relentlessly upbeat Reg, who cares more for his model airplanes than his family, it becomes clear why she’s such a control ­freak.

Norman’s wife Ruth appears the most outwardly successful, if you omit her life-threatening vanity (near blind, she refuses to wear glasses, even when driving). She understands Norman (“he can’t be responsible for every strange relationship in this family”) and “might” want a ­divorce.

Norman begs to differ. There’s nothing wrong with the men in the house, he says. Their problem is they “allow themselves to be trampled on by the giant feet of their cow elephant ­spouses.”

Taken together, the three plays resemble a musical “round”: the first play starts the song; the second starts it again, as does the third. As in a round — the repetitions not only reinforce each other, they thicken Ayckbourn’s theme. Whether they’re in the garden, the living room, or at the dining table, the six characters are marching in place, not moving forward. At one point, Ayckbourn tips his hand: their lives resemble a mouse running on a wheel in a ­cage.

Cygnet Theatre gives the trilogy a polished staging with emphasis on the comic; it’s a farce performed in a three-ring circus (and on a new thrust stage at Cygnet). But Ayckbourn called these plays “black farce.” He loved to turn comedy on its ear, making the pain behind the laughter undeniable. Thus, stock characters wearing comic masks should live lives bled of vitality and light years from love. Codirected by Sean Murray and Francis Gercke, however, the production lets the characters’ bleakness fall where it may. This choice tames the play’s mightiest line. Norman says: “This is a family…if we can’t finally join hands, what hope is there for ­anybody?”

Albert Dayan gives Norman an admirable, loony physicality; he loops and flops like a drunk, even when sober. Dayan’s a funny puppy dog, but could be more repellant: the more off-putting he becomes, the more he heightens the sisters’ evanescent ­hopes.

Jo Anne Glover (Annie), Sandy Campbell (Sarah), and Frances Anita Rivera (Ruth) do quality work throughout, as do Ron Choularton (Reg) and Danny Campbell (Tom). Part of the fun of seeing all three shows lies in watching actors performing “crosswise”: the scenes are half an hour apart, but the actors may have played the most recent one yesterday or two days ago. They must enter this scene with that same emotional pitch as before, and they do!

Like the eight-hour Nicholas Nickelby and The Mahabharata, The Norman Conquests is a theatrical epic. But unlike The Mahabharata (which, when you’ve sat for nine hours and are tired enough to accept whatever, begins to undercut its final illusions), no great epiphany waits at the end of Norman. The payoffs are more lateral. When you watch a scene, you know from previous plays what’s going on elsewhere. You have a kind of temporary omniscience: but remain powerless to aid these lives of not-so-quiet ­desperation. ■

The Norman Conquests: Table Manners, Living Together, Round and Round the Garden, by Alan Ayckbourn
Cygnet Theatre, 4040 Twiggs Street, Old Town
Directed by Sean Murray and Francis Gercke; cast: Danny Campbell, Sandy Campbell, Ron Choularton, Albert Dayan, Jo Anne Glover, Frances Anita Rivera; scenic design, Sean Fanning; costumes, Jeanne Reith; lighting, Michelle Caron; sound, George Ye.
Playing through November 7; Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday at 4:00 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-337-1525.

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