Any sufferer of low blood sugar will understand what’s wrong with the following menu: Water biscuits. Milk. Lettuce leaves (six). One bottle carrot wine. One bottle dandelion wine. One box Cheerios. One box corn flakes. One box Puffa Puffa Rice. One dish jam. One dish marmalade. Twelve slabs bread, toasted. One pot tea. One pot oxtail stew with “unidentified lumps.” A few sundry bits. Feeds six, for one holiday weekend.
That might explain why the talk in Alan Ayckbourn’s Table Manners — the first play in his comic trilogy, The Norman Conquests — quickly veers to cannibalism, and ultimately leads the six characters to devour each other. The personalities who populate Ayckbourn’s tale are all staples of British comedy. There is Annie, the lonely spinster deputized to care for her ailing mother. Her sister Ruth is a striver; her brother Reg is rather impotent; his wife Sarah conceals all her insecurities beneath a prim, proper exterior. Annie’s love interest, a veterinarian named Tom, is potentially asexual. Her other love interest, Ruth’s husband Norman, is a lecherous, temperamental librarian.
Thus, we have all the raw ingredients for a disaster, especially when you throw them in the pressure-cooker environment of Annie’s home, where everyone convenes for a haphazardly arranged holiday weekend. That setup provides enough material to fuel three separate plays, each occurring in a different room. Shotgun Players challenged itself with producing all three concurrently, with one cast and three different directors. Table Manners kicked the series off last week. The actors are lions, even though some pretend to be lambs. Zehra Berkman plays a guileless Annie against Josiah Polhemus‘ insouciant Tom. Kendra Lee Oberhauser is the alpha in her marriage to Mick Mize‘ shifty, grinning Reg. But the weirdest match of all is geeky Ruth (Sarah Mitchell) and her big yellow beast of a husband, played by Richard Reinholdt. His Norman not only seduces the other actors; he manhandles the audience as well.
It makes you wonder how these people ever got together in the first place. Like his predecessor Noël Coward, Ayckbourn specializes in comedies of manners, and dramas of the kitchen-sink variety. His marriages are falling apart. Most of his characters are privately unhappy, no matter how giddy they appear in public. And most have a rather carnivorous way of approaching relationships: Consume the other person, then disgorge his poison.
That’s fodder for terrific comedy, especially in a house with a barren larder. It became a vacation home by accident. Originally, Annie had planned to abscond for two days with Norman, while Sarah and Reg took care of mum and Tom tended his animals. Ruth was supposed to enjoy a quiet weekend alone. Annie would tell her family that she was vacationing solo. Of course, everything comes undone in the opening scene, when Annie confides to Sarah about her affair with Norman, who arrives moments later. After getting pilloried by his in-laws, Norman handles the situation by boozing up on the dandelion wine. Tom comes in to see what all the fuss is about, not realizing that his presence will merely complicate things.
In the absence of real food, the characters lard their language with jokes and funny asides. They ration. For the first dinner, they graze on salad and fermented drinks, while Norman sings offstage. For the second dinner, Sarah serves everyone a lettuce leaf, followed by a lump of gluey stew. The bread is inedible by the next morning, so Tom uses his to build a sailboat, with a paper napkin serving as the mast.
They also use food to convey emotion, as when Annie throws a tin of biscuits on the floor, or when Sarah viciously cuts her lettuce leaf with a knife and fork. Norman tries to break the ice at breakfast by marveling as the milk settles in his cereal bowl. The actors chomp and masticate their lettuce, brandish their silver, and butter their bread furiously, ignoring Norman’s ill-fated pleas for attention.
Table Manners is an easy play to produce, but director Joy Carlin adds some terrific surprise elements. Take, for instance, the actors’ authentic British accents, which pack an extra comic punch into each line. Honed by assistant director Trish Mulholland, they have the lilt of proper BBC television, rising in pitch and volume mid-sentence. Mitchell and Obenhauser — who also played opposite one another in Impact Theater’s See How We Are — make a fabulous pair of in-laws. Cast members even handle the challenges of staging a play that’s largely built around the dinner table, where two people’s backs are always to the audience, and where it’s hard not to be overshadowed by Norman, who arrives in a pair of leopard-print jammies. I’d like to think that much of the blocking in this play was improvised — including the part when Mitchell slides one palm along the back of a chair, and bemoans the state of things: “This meal is rapidly becoming unbearable.”