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Theater Review

Ayckbourn's 'Garden' Sprouts Funny Romance at SCR

April 20, 1999|DON SHIRLEY | TIMES THEATER WRITER

For more than a year, America pondered the serious consequences of inappropriate sexual behavior. So let's make way now for Norman, Alan Ayckbourn's incorrigibly frisky assistant librarian, who's all too willing to demonstrate--once again--the comic consequences of extramarital fooling around.

He succeeds in stirring up the laughs in Ayckbourn's "Round and Round the Garden," at South Coast Repertory. It would be awfully hard to keep a straight face while watching the roundelay of attempted seductions and the one exceptionally funny second-act misunderstanding in this play, as enacted by South Coast's remarkable company.

Whether the production is a total triumph may depend on your previous experience with Ayckbourn's work. On the roll-in-the-aisles, laugh-till-you-cry meter, this production lags behind South Coast's peerless 1997 revival of Ayckbourn's "How the Other Half Loves."

Furthermore, for those who have seen a sharp production of the entire "The Norman Conquests" trilogy, of which "Round and Round" is a part, there is bound to be some mild disappointment that South Coast didn't pursue its initial plan to present the other two parts, "Table Manners" and "Living Together," in addition to "Round and Round the Garden."

Created as a package of plays in the '70s, the three parts of the trilogy add up to a spectacle of brilliant structural ingenuity. The laughter roused by the second and third parts is intensified by reverberations from the previously seen play or plays. More than 20 years later, no local company could handle the challenge of staging the entire trilogy better than South Coast, yet it's unlikely that South Coast will now rise to that challenge, having just presented "Round and Round the Garden" all by itself.

The three plays are set in different parts of the same house on the same weekend in July, with the same characters. In Times interviews, both Ayckbourn and "Round and Round" director Martin Benson have stated that "Round and Round" stands on its own better than the other two. The first and last scenes of "Round and Round" are also the first and last scenes in the chronology of the whole trilogy, so this play is the trilogy's "framework piece," Ayckbourn said.

It's certainly true that the absence of the other plays leads to no confusion about what's going on here. However, this play--in its solitary state--does contain references to offstage revelations or confrontations that we would prefer seeing for ourselves. In a sense, "Round and Round" by itself is a big tease. Benson follows the standard advice to leave the audience wanting more. That we do want to see more is, of course, a tribute to the characterizations that are already on display.

Chief among them is Timothy Landfield's Norman, who's trying to run off for an illicit weekend with his wife's unmarried sister Annie. Their plan is exposed, for reasons that become clear in one of the other plays, but it's unlikely that irrepressible Norman could keep a secret for much longer than 15 minutes under any circumstances.

Landfield captures his extreme verve, his assertive physicality and just the right amount of soul-searching in his drunken reverie near the end of the first act. Norman's irresistibility is assisted by the fact that the other men are each resistible in comically contrasting ways: Annie's brother Reg (Allan Hendrick) is a garrulous conventional suburbanite, while Norman's very tentative rival for Annie, the Scottish-raised veterinarian Tom (Time Winters), is hilariously dense and reticent in social situations.

We sympathize with Susan Marie Brecht's gallant Annie as she tries to mitigate a lifetime spent in service to her invalid mother by having a fling with Norman, if not a marriage to Tom. Norman's cynical wife, Ruth (coolly authoritative Lynnda Ferguson), also wins respect, in the recent style of Hillary Rodham Clinton. The confusions within Reg's wife, Sarah (Nike Doukas), are more repressed, and Doukas has fun with Sarah's ambivalent desires, especially when dressed in Susan Denison's Geller's white-gloved gardening outfit.

Michael Devine's set isn't as overgrown as Ayckbourn's stage directions recommend, but he provided a little statue of Cupid that serves admirably in some of Norman's comic business and also helps suggest the "Midsummer Night's Dream" overtones of the whole affair, as do the whimsical brass and woodwind bleatings heard as the acts are introduced.

* "Round and Round the Garden," South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2:30 p.m. Ends May 16. $28-$45. (714) 708-5555. Running time: 2 hours.

Timothy Landfield: Norman

Time Winters: Tom

Susan Marie Brecht: Annie

Allan Hendrick: Reg

Nike Doukas: Sarah

Lynnda Ferguson: Ruth

Written by Alan Ayckbourn. Directed by Martin Benson. Set by Michael Devine. Costumes by Susan Denison Geller. Lighting by York Kennedy. Sound by B.C. Keller. Stage manager Julie Haber.

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