19 April 2009

Everybody Loves Norman (sorry, I couldn't resist)

Y'all, meet my new boyfriend:

Ignore those two ladies. He really loves *me*.

Yesterday was an almost perfect day. Went to a gorgeous yoga studio across from the big gorgeous library for a three-person class taught by my future-yoga-teacher friend. Then from there to lunch & reading in Bryant Park, a burrito picnic in Central Park (where I saw a squirrel find half a freaking coconut, in reenactment of Ice Age), and a friend's birthday in Brooklyn. It took three trains to get home, but I didn't wait for any of them more than ten minutes.

Oh, and I also saw five hours of TOTALLY FUCKING AWESOME THEATRE.

You know, it's sort of been Experimental Theatre Week* here at Surplus. Beowulf right on the heels (roughly) of Rambo Solo, and a ticket to Red Fly/Blue Bottle for tonight. I saw a much more conventional, realistic play in the interim, and was like, eh. Very eh. But then yesterday a play from 1973, which a lot of people call a sex farce - not usually thought to be the deepest kind of drama - completely rocked my face off.

The Norman Conquests is a trilogy of plays, now running in rep at Circle in the Square (now, I think, one of my favorite Broadway theatres), by Alan Ayckbourn. The plays all take place over the same weekend at the same big house - one in the dining room, one in the living room, one in the garden. Each has four scenes, some happening at the same time as scenes in other plays, some filling in the gaps. They say that the plays can stand on their own, and that's probably true to varying degrees, but they really function best, and most rewardingly, as a whole.

Oh, and what a whole it is. Or 2/3rds of a whole, as I gave away my ticket to yesterday's first play of the marathon, Table Manners, so I could be part of Miranda's first yoga class. (James saw the full marathon, with Amanda taking my ticket to the first play.) But still. Wow. I had very little idea of what to expect, whether I would even like the plays. Someone dismissively had called Ayckbourn "the British Neil Simon," though my response to that had been, "I like Neil Simon."

And goddamn do I apparently like Alan Ayckbourn. And not just him - this (these) production(s) are almost completely perfect. Transcendant. The cast is giving some of the most absolutely genius performances I've ever seen - acting-wise, not just comedically - and the direction of this ensemble is, um, flawless. From pure slapstick, commedia-type lazzi, to incredibly heartfelt moments of emotional vulnerability and pain, these plays are a perfectly complete experience. And the in-the-round staging at Circle in the Square is amazing. The theatre feels small, but it still feels like there are a lot of people in there. My special, piercing laugh was only very rarely discernable among the general roar, and when the audience frequently burst into applause at a particularly brilliant joke or delivery, it never felt like an audience overreacting. Things were really just that good. I even found myself compelled to applause - at moments in the show, at the ends of scenes - just because things were so fucking good that you had to clap. Like, Oh, look, my hands are moving. Huh.

And this cast. Oh my. Absolute geniuses. In the cast of six there's barely a weak link, but I should especially mention Jessica Hynes, who has some of the saddest emotional moments but is also a comic genius (her hand gestures alone!), and Ben Miles, with his brilliant scared forest creature darting, unfocused gaze.

And then there is my new boyfriend, Stephen Mangan, who plays Norman. Aside from the fact that he is tall and blue-eyed curly-haired, kind of Sacha Baron Cohenish in looks (or Hamish Linklaterian, with a shade of John Glover), the man gives one of the best performances I have ever seen in my life. He did not let up for a second. From absolutely brilliant clowning comedy work (a bit with some very strong parsnip wine being probably my favorite) to absolutely wrenching, heartbreaking (especially if you identify with Annie, ahem) acting. I'd never known these plays before, but you need someone very special to play Norman. There's the requisite comic genius, of course, but he's a tricky character - he needs to be totally, overwhelmingly lovable, intensely charming and charismatic but also somehow unassuming and unthreatening. (There are multiple references to Norman as some sort of puppy or dog.) He can't seem like an asshole or a cad, but has to totally be one, without losing the audience's love. (At the end of one particularly cruel scene, I leaned over to James and very sadly said, "Now I can't love Norman anymore." It was a great loss. And I still pretty much loved him.)

Stephen Mangan nails this all. Even just thinking about it now, my heart hurts a little. Norman's arguably incredibly self-centered, a total user, but he does it so well that I'm like, Where do I sign up? (I think even folks without a predisposition towards tall or curly-haired or sweetly caddish people would agree.) If the audience doesn't love Norman, this play can't work, but seriously, where do I sign up?

NB: These plays are advertised as working in any order, but I really think Round and Round the Garden needs to be seen last. (Its last scene is the chronologically last among the trilogy, and really is an ending.) The order of the marathon day - Table Manners, Living Together, Round and Round the Garden - seems to make the most sense, but I think the third being third is most important.

Gah, I loved these plays so much. I can't wait to see Table Manners, except for knowing that it'll just reinforce Norman's hold on my heart, and being in love with a fictional character, especially such an emotionally dangerous one, can't be very good. And also, two more hours of The Norman Conquests is just going to leave me wanting several hours more.

I saw Ben Brantley at Round and Round the Garden, and he looked to be having a fantastic freaking time. I fully expect a rave when these shows open in a few days. They deserve it. Who knows if that'll translate to amazing ticket sales (I hope), but get some tickets now.



Rocco said...

yes yes yes! You said everything I was thinking. These plays are the best thing in the world right now. I could sit down and see them again in a heartbeat.

Rocco said...

I saw the same two. In that order. If I don't get into that dining room this week I'm going to die.

Just die, I tell you.

Esther said...

I saw all three on the same day in July and I loved them, too. I don't live in New York so I'm pretty careful about the shows I pick. And I hadn't planned to see The Norman Conquests. But they got great reviews from some of my fellow bloggers, so I took a chance.

The whole cast was terrific but I agree that Stephen Mangan was incredible. I mean, I was prepared to dislike Norman but Mangan makes him so sweet and innocent and sympathetic. He really just wants to make everybody happy. What's wrong with that?!