Saturday, May 2, 2009

Theater Review: The Norman Conquests

Location: Circle in the Square, 1633 Broadway, NY, NY

Website: Official The Norman Conquests site

Starring: Stephen Mangan, Jessica Hynes, Amelia Bullmore, Ben Miles, Amanda Root, Paul Ritter

My Review: After being subjected to a season of theatrical crap courtesy of my Roundabout Theatre subscription, it was unbelievably refreshing to see something as engaging, clever, and entertaining as The Norman Conquests. Hell, it was refreshing to just realize that theater can still be entertaining, seeing as most of what’s been on offer lately has been heavy-handed bore-fests, where you feel like a philistine if you don’t like it, or cheesy jukebox musicals who hope their fun songs will distract from their lack of plot, where you feel like an imbecile if you do like it. The Norman Conquests manages to offer the best of both worlds: A play that is clever and cunning, yet laugh-out-loud funny, that you never have to feel embarrassed about enjoying.

The Norman Conquests is actually a trilogy of plays, but each one works as a self-contained performance, so it’s not required to see all three to enjoy the show. Though truth be told, after seeing only one of the three, I’m desperately hoping to be able to see the remaining two before the show’s run ends. Set in a home in the English country, the play tells the twisted tale of Norman, who arrives to whisk his wife’s sister, Annie, away for a weekend of debauchery, only to be thwarted by the arrival of his brother-in-law and his uptight wife. Then there’s Tom, the hopelessly awkward veterinarian who’s been smitten with Annie for years and finds every excuse to hang about her house, and the eventual arrival of Norman’s wife, Ruth, to also throw a wrench in Norman’s plans. Each play within the trilogy takes place in a different location of the house, and each one is fraught with comical misunderstandings and bizarre pairings.

Written in 1973, The Norman Conquests is a sex farce not entirely unlike some episodes of Three’s Company, but since it’s a British play, the comedy somehow manages to achieve an elevated level. The interweaving of the three separate plays, the mistaken interpretations, and the character’s hidden agendas echo elements of Shakespeare comedies, like Much Ado About Nothing. Yet there are moments of hilarious physical humor that seem to be pulled directly from The Benny Hill Show. It all blends together flawlessly and creates a fantastic theatrical experience. It’s quite delightful, and oh so very British.

Bottom Line: The Norman Conquests is running throughout July, so grab tickets while you can (on Saturdays and Sundays you can see the entire trilogy, if you can handle a full day in the theater). Originally a production at the Old Vic in London, The Norman Conquests is so entertaining that I hope we continue to receive British transplants in the New York theater district. They could certainly teach a thing or two to some of the New York productions.

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