Local group stages complete comic trilogy, ’The Norman Conquests’

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Alan Ayckbourn, author of the comic trilogy "The Norman Conquests," has been called the "British Neil Simon," but somehow, despite his trilogy’s successful 1975 Broadway run (starring Richard Benjamin and Paula Prentice), Ayckbourn is not a household name.

The trilogy has not had a major revival for more than 25 years, which makes the Brooklyn-based smatter theatre ensemble’s month-long performances of the plays at the Phil Bosakowski Theatre in Manhattan such a momentous undertaking.

Christina Cass, who founded the smatter theatre ensemble (no, they don’t use initial caps) four years ago with Blake Strasser, told GO Brooklyn that when Dan Patrick Brady (who plays the title role) introduced her to the trilogy, she was struck by its hilarity at the very first reading.

"I laughed," said the Park Slope resident. "I laughed on the train. I never laughed so much. On the way home I couldn’t stop reading. I would rush from streetlight to streetlight."

"The Norman Conquests" is a series of three plays - "Table Manners," "Living Together" and "Round and Round the Garden" - which collectively and individually expose the romantic exploits of Norman and his extended family. The central question that perplexes Norman, a full-time assistant librarian and part-time gigolo, is how he can escape from his family and successfully seduce his sister-in-law.

All three plays take place on the same weekend in Mother’s rambling country house. The action of the plays is concurrent, so that each play provides a unique perspective from which the audience observes the machinations of Norman and his wife, Ruth; Ruth’s sister Annie and her boyfriend; and Ruth’s brother Reg and his wife, Sarah.

"Norman tries to seduce his sister-in-law [Annie] in a different room of the house, and manages to seduce other people instead," Cass explained.

"Table Manners" takes place in the dining room. This time it’s his wife’s brother and his wife, Sarah, who interfere with Norman’s plans.

In "Living Together," Norman gets drunk on homemade dandelion wine in the living room, and the shenanigans continue.

"Round and Round the Garden" finds Norman attempting to seduce both his sisters-in-law - single Annie and married Sarah - in the garden, where he also must dodge brother-in-law Reg and Annie’s local suitor, Tom, the veterinarian.

"The Norman Conquests" is directed by Lise McDermott, who directed the ensemble’s "smatter 2001," a full-length original ensemble play performed at the Heights Players’ theater last June.

Cass met Strasser, a Ditmas Park resident, 10 years ago when they were both playing nuns in the Heights Players’ production of "The Sound of Music." In the ensuing years, both continued acting in local theater. (This season, Cass played Terry, the alcoholic mother in the Heights Players’ "Side Man.") Four years ago, they decided to expand their horizons.

"We weren’t getting cast in the roles we wanted to be cast in," said Cass. Although Cass and Strasser managed to just break even with their own productions, they at least had the satisfaction of providing themselves with the roles they wanted, and also producing their own original work.

The production of "smatter 2001" was pivotal because it allowed them to "go back home," said Cass. It was also the first time the Heights Players had rented their theater to an outside group.

Although "people raved" over the production, Cass said, "smatter 2001" did not draw the audiences they would have liked, so they decided to do a revival of "something recognizable" to increase awareness of the group.

"The Norman Conquests" is both a "massive undertaking" and "a departure from what we normally do," Cass said. This trilogy about a middle-class British family, doesn’t need fancy sets and costumes, but it is structurally ambitious and demands actors who can deliver hilarious dialogue spoken with a British accent (which, said Cass, the cast has been studying for months).

Cass believes Ayckbourn originally wanted the three plays to run at the same time, perhaps having the audience move from room to room. This proved to be practically impossible. Ayckbourn, however, is coming closer to his goal with his two new plays, "House" and "Garden," which will run concurrently with actors racing between two sets at Manhattan Theatre Club beginning April 27, the day "The Norman Conquests" closes.

The smatter theatre ensemble hopes that with their revival of a trilogy that has been under-appreciated in the United States, they will be able to combine "their particular vision with Ayckbourn’s proven pedigree."


"The Norman Conquests," presented by the smatter theatre ensemble, opens April 4 at 8 pm with "Table Manners." Subsequently, each of the three plays will be performed on a rotating schedule on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays at 8 pm. Saturday marathons of all three plays begin at 2 pm, and Sunday double features also begin at 2 pm. Tickets for each play cost $15. A "Trilogy Passport" is $40, and allows the purchaser to see the complete trilogy during a Saturday marathon or at his or her leisure through April 27. Tickets are free for New York City firefighters and police officers.

For a complete schedule, call (212) 560-4343 or visit The Phil Bosakowski Theatre is located at 45th Street and Ninth Avenue.

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