GLOUCESTER — “Round and Round the Garden” aptly describes the comic antics in Alan Ayckbourn’s third installment in the 1973 trilogy known as the “Norman Conquests.” At Gloucester Stage Company, director Eric C. Engel completes his own cycle, returning to the “Norman Conquests” after opening the 2010 season with part one, “Table Manners,” and 2011 with part two, “Living Together.” With a stellar cast, most of whom are veterans of the other Ayckbourn productions, the company offers a high-energy, fast-paced performance that balances physical humor with verbal swordplay.
The catalyst for all the chaos is Norman (Steven Barkhimer), a hapless but endearing loser, whose efforts at seduction should be ridiculous, but touch a chord in the lonely and frustrated siblings who stumble around the family house.
All three plays are set in the home where Annie (Sarah Newhouse), Reg (Richard Snee), and Ruth (Adrianne Krstansky) grew up, and where Annie still cares for their unseen mother. Reg, the most conventional, is married to Sarah (Lindsay Crouse), a meddling sister-in-law, while Ruth is married to the philandering Norman, a relationship she describes as akin to “owning an oversized, unmanageable dog.”
Annie has a doltish sometime boyfriend in Tom (Barlow Adamson), the local vet, whose title one wag describes as an abbreviation for “very eccentric twit.” But since he’s better with animals than people, he’s left Annie vulnerable to Norman’s amorous advances, which are to culminate at a hotel room.
Each of the three plays takes place on the same weekend, in a different room in the house, with “Round and Round the Garden” offering deliciously comic opportunities for rolling in the flowerbed, resting on a swing, and wrestling resistant lawn chairs.
It all sounds very old-fashioned and cliched, but the speed at which the action unfolds, Engel’s ease with moving the actors into and away from conflict, and the increasing absurdity of the situation all combine to keep the audience engaged. Although no one in this cast hangs on to a British accent with any consistency, they are wonderfully comfortable with each other, which makes some of their outrageous behavior appealing.
Barkhimer amps up Norman’s buffoonish qualities, fulfilling his wife’s prediction that he has “three emotions for every occasion,” swooning over each of the three women whenever they are alone together. Watch him flop and roll about on the ground like a playful seal after he’s had too much to drink, toss his new pajama top on the roof in a gesture of excitement about an assignation to come, but then, in the end, leave chastened, rejected by all three.
Snee provides the perfect balance as the buttoned-down straight man, wearing a woman’s apron high on his chest, once again displaying his exquisite comic timing. Adamson is wonderful as the awkward, angular Tom, who makes lines like “It’s a shame we’re not horses” sound sincere.
The women are equally at home in their characters’ skins, with Crouse playing the prissy in-law, Newhouse the repressed but dutiful daughter, and Krstansky doing a wonderful turn as the arch, bitterly amused Ruth.
Jenna McFarland Lord’s run-down country home and Gail Buckley’s individualized costume choices add greatly to Engel’s deft direction, producing an amusing adventure with Ayckbourn.