GREAT BARRINGTON -- A cloud of longing and frustration hangs in the air over a modest farm in Sussex, England, that is the home of a thirtysomething woman named Annie in Alan Ayckbourn's "Table Manners," the first of his "Norman Conquests" trilogy -- three plays set on the same weekend in the same house with the action unfolding simultaneously in the dining room ("Table Manners"), the living room ("Living Together") and in the garden ("Round and Round the Garden"). A character's exit from a scene in one play is an entrance into a scene in one of the other plays.
Annie, played with affecting grace and intelligence by Josephine Wilson in Mixed Company's uneven production of "Table Manners," is preparing to go away for the weekend. She's asked her brother, Reg (Ryan Marchione), accompanied by his wife, Sarah (Dana Harrison), to come and look after the farm and their ailing mother, who lives with Annie, while she's away. What she doesn't say, until Sarah pries it out of her, is that she won't be alone. Her companion will be Annie's brother-in-law, an assistant librarian named Norman (Gray Simons), who is married to Annie and Reg's sister, Ruth (Stephanie Hedges), who just happens to show up with Norman unexpectedly.
Frustrated, Annie has turned to Norman, who is only to eager to help. "I just want to make you happy," he tells her with his distinctive brand of sincerity. But you just know -- and with good reason as "Table Manners" progresses -- that while the library represents Norman's vocation, making women happy is his avocation. Ruth (played splendidly by an impressively layered Hedges), knows better. She stays with Norman but she's not blind to his ways. When, during a singularly unpleasant, awkward dinner, she displays revulsion at the meager meal Annie has put together with Sarah's assistance, it's not simply the inadequacy of the food over which she is expressing distaste. And yet, as a shift in mood in the last act hints, even Ruth is not invulnerable to Norman's charms and boudoir skills.
The problem is that Simon's Norman is so repulsively self-centered and sexually driven, it is difficult to see what it is Annie and the other women he's managed to charm see in him.
Ayckbourn's Norman is the kind of character you can't help but be drawn to even while, at the same time, you realize how self-absorbed he is and how much damage he is capable of causing as he blithely and indifferently goes about his business. In a brilliantly crafted scene, Ayckbourn lays out Norman's audacious methodology as he goes to work on good old straitlaced play-life-by-the-book Sarah (portrayed expertly by Harrison) whose manic drive to organize everyone and everything is a way of venting frustration at a husband who doesn't measure up to her standards or expectations.
Simon's Norman is uncomfortably leering, with more than a touch of lechery. Nowhere is there a hint of the disarming, ingenuous boyish quality that draws women to him.
Toole's Tom is too phlegmatic, too deliberate in his simplicity. His rhythm is at odds with the play's more driving impulses.
Caught between Toole's excess of deliberation on the one hand and Simon's excess of excess on the other, Marchione, as Reg, finds a subtly defined balance in his portrayal of a man who is pushed this way and that by a wife who is increasingly impatient with an easygoing demeanor in her husband that seems to defiantly grow more easygoing as she demands more of him. But clearly, there is a gathering storm within Reg.
It's the women who sustain this production. Harrison, Wilson and Hedges go to the limits and the depths in a set of performances that remind you why Mixed Company has had such success with Ayckbourn's plays over the course of its 32 years.
By Alan Ayckbourn.
Directed by Joan Ackermann and Gillian Seidl; lighting design, Rudi Bach; set design, Linda Josephs; costumes, Ruby Jones.
When: Through Sunday Aug. 3. Eves.: 8 Thu.-Sun.
Where: Mixed Company, 37 Rossetter St., Great Barrington.
Tickets: $20. (413) 528-2320.
Run time: 2 hours 16 minutes
Annie Josephine Wilson
Sarah Dana Harrison
Reg Ryan Marchione
Tom Patrick Toole
Norman Gray Simons
Ruth Stephanie Hedges