British playwright Alan Ayckbourn is often regarded as England's version of Neil Simon. But while both master craftsmen have an affinity for rim-shot-style comedy -- Simon started out as a writer on Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows, as did Mel Brooks and Woody Allen -- they are careful to balance their shenanigans with on-the-mark insight and poignant musings.
Unfortunately, the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art's production of Ayckbourn's Table Manners is long on shtick, short on insight and heavy on angst. An abundance of forced comic bits, stilted exchanges and shaky dialects draws the audience's attention to the play's mechanics rather than the human dynamics that underlie it. Worse, director Kevin Causey has the performers linger in the tiny theater's shadows when they're not on stage, sitting in chairs at the back of the house or conspicuously tiptoeing behind rows of spectators before making their next entrance -- a phony, artsy device that's more distracting than illuminating. The same is true of Causey's decision to have one performer, in the first scene, shove a mop under the feet of people seated in the front row, and, in one of the last scenes, send porcelain fragments flying into the audience by smashing a coffee mug to smithereens -- isolated assaults that, like the actors' offstage lurking, seem haphazard and gratuitous instead of fitting into a larger, more overriding concept.
Inconsistencies and gaffes aside, the 145-minute comedy (which is the first part of Ayckbourn's trilogy, The Norman Conquests) features some decent portrayals. Actress Rebecca Brown lends warmth and humor to Annie, a single woman caught between the need to care for her aging mother and a mounting desire to snare Mr. Right -- who might or might not be Tom, a thickheaded bloke who periodically shows up at Annie's doorstep to shoot the breeze (and is given a thin reading here by Ryan Eggensperger). As Annie's meddling sister-in-law, Sarah, Birgitta DePree burrows into everyone else's business while maintaining an air of indignant propriety -- and in the process, sets in motion some genuinely funny moments. Steve Grad earns a few laughs as Norman, the cad who winds up catching Sarah in her own web of deception, though his superficial portrayal fails to convince, as it should, that Norman's philandering ways arise from a can't-help-but-love-him charm. As his long-suffering wife, Ruth, Dee Covington does what she can with a character that joins the action pretty late in the game. And despite a tendency to plod through dialogue that requires a lighter, quicker touch, Judson Webb proves likable as Sarah's mate, Reg.
Ultimately, the show looks more like a pile of scattered, unrelated remnants than a rich, interwoven tapestry. Scenes that should dovetail in both humorous and tender ways seem disconnected from each other, and it doesn't make much difference how any of the relationships evolve, much less how each character grows or changes. Stop the play at any given moment, and most audience members would likely walk out unconcerned and indifferent. True, there's more to come in the trilogy's second and third parts. But just as each part of Neil Simon's Brighton Beach trilogy is capable of standing alone and imparting a message greater than the sum of its jokes, so, too, is each play in Ayckbourn's three-parter. By connecting the behavioral quirks in Table Manners with a greater degree of humanity and understanding, Causey and company may yet give dimension and shape to the playwright's bigger picture.
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