Theater Review: ‘Table Manners’ go by the wayside at Dorset

In Alan Ayckbourn's comedy “Table Manners,” the dining room becomes the hub of melodrama for a most dysfunctional family during a weekend get together. And the Dorset Theatre Festival production, which opened the company's 2016 summer season Friday, proved deliciously witty and laugh-out-loud funny.

“Table Manners” is part of Ayckbourn's trilogy, “The Norman Conquests,” which follows the romantic attempts of the randy librarian with various women in his family. The three plays, each set in a different room but during the same time period, are being presented consecutively by three of Vermont's top professional theaters. 

White River Junction's Northern Stage presented the first, “Living Together,” April 20 to May 8, and Weston Playhouse Theatre Company will close the series with “Round and Round the Garden” July 21-30. For all three, the cast and production team are the same, but each has a different director. Each play is complete in itself, so it's entirely unnecessary to se the others.

The story is the same, but the different sides viewed result in very different and unexpected flavors. Norman has arranged a weekend tryst with Annie, whose role in life is to stay home and care for her invalid mother. Reg, Annie's brother, and his wife Sarah have come to cover for Annie with no idea what her weekend plans really are. When the uptight and self-righteous Sarah finds out, it's off to the races.

It doesn't help that Annie is in an “almost” relationship with the somewhat dense Tom, and Norman is married to Annie's sister Ruth. But the real humor comes from this bunch of incredibly selfish and myopic misfits trying to survive a weekend with one another. 

And that interaction — as well as the comic portrayals — were just delicious in Dorset's “Table Manners,” directed by Evan Yionoulis. To make a success of these comedies, all of these damaged characters need to be sympathetic and Dorset succeeded.

Jenni Putney's Annie was the most sympathetic and dimensional as she tried to manage the minefield of Norman, Tom and Sarah. And Richard Gallagher was wickedly funny as the self-absorbed Norman as he plied the vulnerabilities of the family women.

Caitlin Clouthier delivered a virtuoso comic performance as Sarah as she alternated between officious and pathetic. (A napkin-folding scene was priceless.) David Mason gave a nuanced, and sympathetically hilarious performance as Tom, always the last to get the joke (if ever). An added moment where Tom was killing time over tea was ridiculously — and tenderly — funny.

Ashton Heyl's Ruth, whether witty or caustic, was the perfect foil for her husband Norman. And Reg, played with British gusto by Mark Light-Orr, was delightfully unconcerned, save for his missing meals and game of golf.

The key to Dorset's success was the actors' sensitive interaction and comic discipline. They seldom and only momentarily got carried away by the humor. Consequently, it was a deliciously funny performance.

Appropriate costumes, some of which added to the humor, by Charles Schoonmaker were much the same. 

The physical production was typical of Dorset, excellent. David Arsenault's terribly elegant dining room complemented Northern Stage's living room, although in very different theater. Appropriate costumes, some of which added to the humor, by Charles Schoonmaker were much the same. And Stuart Duke's masterful lighting and Jane Shaw's complementary atmospheric sound design were successful in both theaters.

Dorset Theater Festival's “Table Manners,” with our without its sister comedies, proved a richly entertaining evening of comedy. 

At 1 p.m. today, at the Dorset Playhouse, director Yionoulis, the artistic directors, and the design team for “The Norman Conquests” will share their experience in moving this trilogy from theater to theater while creating the world of the play. 

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Dorset Theatre Festival

Dorset Theatre Festival presents
the Alan Ayckbourn comedy
“Table Manners”

June 16-July 2
at the Dorset Playhouse,
104 Cheney Road in Dorset.