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Comedy of Manners 

Live Theatre Workshop sticks a quivering fork into gelatinous middle-class English values.

'Tis summer, and a middle-aged man's fancy turns to getting his rocks off with whatever woman will put up with him. Which is what preoccupies this particular man through the rest of the year, too. His name is Norman, and however reprehensible his efforts at seduction may be, it's very hard to dislike him, unless you happen to get in the way of one of his conquests.

Norman considers himself a three-woman-a-day man, although you have to wonder if he actually manages even three a month. He's a most unlikely lothario, not the usual suave seducer. "Look at me," he cries to a disapproving relative, "a gigolo trapped in a haystack!"

Alan Ayckbourn's trilogy The Norman Conquests follows Norman, his wife and his in-laws through a weekend of sexual frustration at an English country house. The three 1974 plays take place simultaneously, each in a different area of the home. Two years ago, Live Theatre Workshop went al fresco with Round and Round the Garden, and now the company has assembled in the dining room for Table Manners. A bedroom farce turned breakfast buffet, Table Manners sticks a quivering fork into gelatinous middle-class English values, and Live Theatre Workshop dishes it out with prim glee.

Garden is perhaps the trilogy's weakest component, but Table Manners finds Ayckbourn at his best. The character-based humor builds steadily through the play, reaching a hilarious crescendo in the third quarter and falling off only slightly toward the end. Ayckbourn has said that his theme in most of his work is "man's inhumanity to woman and woman's inhumanity to man," but there's nothing really nasty about any of the Norman Conquest characters. They're all well-meaning bumblers, and even Norman's efforts to be calculating are really just clumsily stylish improvisation.

Norman has arranged a weekend getaway with his wife's young sister, Annie, but Annie would really rather be off with Tom, the gentle, hopelessly inarticulate local veterinarian. Annie's extended family is so self-absorbed that if you squeezed them all into a tight closet you'd soon see a big but odorless puddle of wrung-out ego seeping from under the door. Tom, in contrast, has all the absorbency of a garden hose. Words and notions trickle through him leaving hardly a trace in his loosely coiled personality.

Anyway, Annie's weekend of reluctant sin falls apart with the arrival of her brother, Reg, and his wife, Sara. Sara is horrified by the mere existence of Norman in her normal little world, and does what she can to redirect Annie's attention toward Tom--not so hard, really, except that Tom's grasp of things is about as firm as two toothpicks in a bowl of soup.

Over the course of the weekend's two dinners and two breakfasts, these people, and eventually Norman's own wife, Ruth, circle each other through the dining room. They're all too mannerly to indulge in food fights, but their words fly with the high velocity yet non-lethal impact of peas launched from a knife.

The back of the box of English corn flakes the family shares at one breakfast happens to bear a promotional blurb titled "A Grain of Truth." Is there a grain of truth in anything Norman tells the assembled company? Surely so. For although he's even more adept at seducing himself than the women he meets, Norman is not a deceitful cad. He's quite open about his own nature, and painfully honest about the nature of the people around him.

You especially have to like Norman in the person of actor James Mitchell Gooden. This is the sort of character Gooden does better than anyone else in town: the too loud, too ardent, too full-of-himself Brit twit with a gift for verbal thrust and parry. You can't help loving Gooden's Norman, who always brings a generous slice of ham to the table.

Linda Andresano is also great fun to watch as Sara, with her subtle blend of prudishness and prurience, the very essence of a middle-class Anglo-American matron-in-the-making.

In such company Annie, although Ayckbourn does write some backbone into her, could easily go as cold and stale as yesterday's breakfast toast. But Valerie Feingold brings plenty of spunk, wit and intelligence to the character, making her occasional spurts of near-hysterical giggling seem all the more desperate.

Jeremy Thompson is an engagingly dense but kind Tom, and Dana Armstrong nicely balances Ruth's myopic mayhem and moral sense. Bruce Bieszki is a comforting presence as good-sport Reg, despite his lack of an English accent.

That's a disconcerting anomaly, because talk is the main course at Ayckbourn's table, and Live Theatre Workshop otherwise serves it with panache.

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