ORLANDO — Here’s a question for you: British humor.
Does it naturally appeal to American audiences, or is the British approach to making us laugh – sarcastic one liners, a touch of self-deprecation, all delivered in a decidedly deadpan manner – a tougher sell beyond the shores of the United Kingdom?
“Table Manners,” the comedy by Alan Ayckbourn that’s now being produced at the Mad Cow Theatre in downtown Orlando, is an interesting case in point. Set in England and considered a very “British” play, it initially feels quite different from what Americans are likely used to in our own television sit-coms – in some ways, to the play’s detriment in the rather slowly paced first act, and then most certainly to the play’s great advantage in the much better second act, which features a truly hilarious scene at the dining table where the mask of civility get tossed aside and lingering resentments and animosities no longer hide below the surface.
It’s a real comedic tour de force, played to perfection by actors who understand that the British pose of reserved manners can conceal some mighty sharp claws underneath.
Ayckbourn’s play is part of a trilogy, The Norman Conquests, that includes “Living Together” and “ ‘Round and ‘Round the Garden.” Set in a country estate, it’s about a family gathering of two sisters and an older brother, and their mates. The youngest sibling, Annie, lives at the home caring for an elderly, bedridden mother never seen by the audience.
Annie’s older brother Reg and his mate Sarah arrive to escape to the country for the weekend. But the tension starts to build after Annie confides to Sarah that she intends to go away for the weekend with Norman, the husband of her sister Ruth. The romantic getaway doesn’t happen, but the reasons why both Annie and Norman contemplate an adulterous tryst – and all of the emotional anxieties bubbling under the surface in that home — slowly boil up and rise to the surface.
Part of the reason is Norman himself, an eccentric bloke who desperately wants to be needed by others – and who clearly can no longer get that kind of affection from Ruth, who is obsessed with her career and demonstrates little continued interest in her marriage or husband. Annie’s desire to spend time with Norman surprises the others, particularly since Annie’s neighbor, Tom, a veterinarian, appears to be interested in courting her.
There isn’t so much of a “plot” to develop in the first act, as the personalities of the six characters – how they’re related to one another, and what makes them tick – are fleshed out. The British style of humor works a bit less effectively in the first act, which devotes itself to setting up the emotional tangles between the characters, but at times seems not to be going anywhere in particular.
And since the tensions build slowly, that dry British humor — which makes the characters’ quirkiness the main comedic calling card — might seem like an acquired taste to American audiences: clever lines that make you smile and appreciate their wit, but that don’t produce much in the way of out loud laughter.
But all of that may actually be the perfect setup for the side-splitting second act, particularly that long dinner scene, where something as mundane as the serving of salad and a potato soup is turned into inspired comedic lunacy. This is where the cast truly shines, particularly Simon Needham as Alan, the one who most cherishes every opportunity to be silly, brash and downright goofy, regardless of whether or not it offends the others.
He’s a delightful contrast to Jamie Middleton’s hilariously prim, dour and stuffy Ruth, who delivers some piercingly sharp jabs in a flat, almost businesslike tone. Thom Mesrobian also gets kudos as the wise-cracking Reg, so disappointed when he’s told that the soup he’s hungrily devouring needs to head back into the pot because Annie gave him too much and now has nothing for herself. With a touch of venom in her voice, Ruth offers him her bowl because she finds it unsuitable for human consumption.
Brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, prospective suitors – it doesn’t quite matter, they can all start off presenting an admirable exterior of respectability, civility and proper manners. As “Table Manners” cleverly points out, when the masks come off, watch out.
“Table Manners” is playing Thursdays through Sundays, Jan. 24 through Feb. 23, in The Mad Cow’s Harriett Theatre. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. weeknights and at 2:30 p.m. Sundays. There will be special Monday night performances at 7:30 on Feb. 3 and 17, and a talk back with the cast when you attend a Thursday or Sunday show. Tickets start at $28.
Mad Cow Theatre is at 54 W. Church St. in downtown Orlando, and tickets can be purchased by calling 407-297-8788.
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