For such a simple piece of furniture, the dinner table can cause a lot of trouble. Marriages ended, bad report cards brandished, chefs insulted — all in the space in which we take our meals. In the case of Alan Ayckbourn’s “Table Manners,” the first of his three related but self-contained plays in his “Norman Conquests” trilogy, the dining room is a place for farcical comedy and pathos. In the case of Christopher Owens’ production, which opened last night at Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall, there are copious servings of the latter. The recipe for the former seems to have been lost.
That is not to say it isn’t funny. Ayckbourn’s dry wit comes through clearly, with the actors commendable in their recitation — in well-polished English accents, no less — of the quick and pithy lines which the characters use to slowly tear each other apart in the space of a weekend. And there are plenty of those, as the affairs of Norman (Lex Powell ’11), an unlikely lothario who seduces his way through his wife’s extended family, come to a head. But where farce demands outrageous and overstated action, the friends and lovers in this “Table Manners” seem to be deliberately downplaying scenes in which the principles of slapstick obviously apply. While this paints a portrait of constrained bitterness in parts of the play, it cripples Norman’s tirade against their hypocrisy had been, it’s difficult to fathom how anyone could realistically find such outbursts offensive. The staging even appears to be party to this campaign against clowning; as Reg (Alec Anderson ’11) nearly chokes on his food, the audience is denied anything but a view of his back.
That fact is a shame, as Anderson’s facial contortions bring the production closest to the burlesque humor “Table Manners” occasionally demands. Building off of his effervescent work in last semester’s “The School for Wives,” Anderson turns his Reg into far more than the passive observer Ayckbourn would suggest. Joel White ’13 makes Tom, the veterinarian neighbor, a hilariously oblivious walking punchline. And Zoe Speas ’12, as the wife of Norman, handles her sardonic and clipped part with a fascinating aplomb. Her bemused reactions to the goings-on of her embarrassingly adulterous husband become a play unto themselves.
Powell, as the pajama-wearing romantic, is enjoyable enough when making inept attempts at luring women into his grasp; but the casual wit Norman is said to possess appears more artificial than off-the-cuff. Chloe Lewis ’11, as Reg’s domineering wife Sarah, makes her attempts at stifling the meltdown engaging and amusing, although her overbearing personality is minimized, crippling the character’s comic potential. Miden Wood ’12, as the initial object of Norman’s affection, becomes more interesting to watch as her character becomes more agitated. By the last scenes of the play, Wood becomes a more consistent source of entertainment.
The technical work of the play is simple and literal, appropriate for a work of this type. Matthew Allar’s set gives the actors plenty of space in which to fume and fight, and Steve Holliday’s lighting keeps the focus on the players, where it belongs. Though her costuming work, Patricia Wesp evokes the feel of the 1970s and creates deliberate contrasts between characters through color. Songs of the era bridge scenes and acts, bringing the audience fully into the world of the play. Nothing is out of place here, since anachronisms would distract from the antics onstage.
Does “Table Manners” succeed as farce? No, not really. But this new, and perhaps unintentional, interpretation brings to light unusual aspects of Ayckbourn’s work that makes the production worth watching. The guests at this dinner may not be as funny as one might like, but by exploring the vagaries of human emotion, an unexpected surprise can be found at the table.