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Thursday, Dec. 13, 2007

Round the Conquest

THEATER REVIEW

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Featuring a knockout combination of some of its best acting talent, the Milwaukee Rep’s production of Alan Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests (through Jan. 20) is well worth attending.

While it’s clearly worth seeing one of the plays, few theatergoers will have the time or desire to see all three—a total of six-and-a-half hours at the Quadracci Powerhouse Theater. The play is fun and insightful, but little is gained in seeing all three that one doesn’t experience from a single part of the trilogy. The most complete story in a single production can be gleaned from Round and Round the Garden, which includes the earliest and latest scenes in the trilogy.

Beyond that, certain plays highlight the talents of given actors better than others. Those interested in seeing comic talent Gerard Neugent as the impetuous assistant librarian, Norman, will be happy to know that Neugent puts in an impressive performance here that quite nearly overcomes some of the tedium Ayckbourn wrote into the character. He’s something like a cross between a young, bespectacled Karl Marx and a floppy dog. Arguably, his best performance comes in Round and Round the Garden where he seems to get more stage time than any of the other plays.

Norman’s wife Ruth, as played by a charmingly precise Deborah Staples, doesn’t make an appearance until relatively late in all three plays. Her best moments may be when her best intentions go horribly wrong in Round and Round the Garden. Torrey Hanson plays her generally cheerful brother, Reg. Hanson’s instincts are put to good work here, as Reg slides his way through the trilogy as gracefully as possible. Perhaps the single best place to see Hanson’s work is in Living Together. Reg is an aspiring game designer trying to interest his family in a game he’s completed work on. His frustration in their lack of interest is great fun to watch.

Laura Gordon matches the passive end of Hanson’s comedy as Reg’s conservative wife, Sarah. Gordon’s best moments occur in TableManners, where Sarah sees a possibility to bring the family together for an enjoyable dinner which must go off without argument or negative incident at any cost. Gordon’s performance leading up to the dinner is brilliantly subtle comedy.

Christmas Carol expatriate and longtime Scrooge, Lee Ernst puts in one of his most memorable performances in years as the dim-witted veterinarian neighbor, Tom. Ernst’s earnest portrayal of a man catastrophically low on the uptake seems to make equally sparse appearances in all three plays.

Making her Rep debut, New York-based actress Finnerty Steeves plays Ruth and Reg’s sister, Annie. Annie is a sweet girl stranded in the house looking after her aging mother in the unseen upstairs. She finds herself attracted to both Norman and Tom for widely different reasons. If Ayckbourn’s play has an emotional center, it is with Annie. The sole non-resident actress in the production, Steeves may not have had the benefit of working with the rest of the cast as much as they’ve worked with each other, but her aptitude for comic performance fits right into the picture as a pleasant, unfamiliar addition to an otherwise exceedingly familiar cast.

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