After writing here about Neil Simon's "Eugene" trilogy, and the continuity problem he caused himself, my friend Greg VanBuskirk sent me a note about seeing the Norman Conquests trilogy by Alan Ayckbourne -- oddly enough, often referred to as the "British Neil Simon" -- before it opened on Broadway. His point was that the three plays, whose plots all take place at the same time, have to be written so incredibly impeccably that Ackybourne didn't have even a hairs-breadth of wiggle room to screw up any continuity.
The Norman Conquests are indeed a theatrical tour-de-force. But -- Ayckbourne topped even himself with his stunning plays "House & Garden." Very few theater companies can put them on properly because of the logistics. Fortunately, I was lucky to seem them both in their U.S. premiere at the Goodman Theatre complex in Chicago, in 2001.
These are two plays that not only take place at the same time during a garden party -- one in the "House" and the other outside in the "Garden" -- and overlap and intertwine, but there's a huge additional twist. Actually two huge additional twists. Because the two comedies are both PERFORMED at the exact same time...and (and this is the even more remarkable thing)...with the VERY SAME CAST!!!
And when I say they're performed at the same time with the same cast, keep in mind that this includes the two curtain calls. One play ends slightly before the other, to give the cast time to rush over to the other and take their bows there, as well.
It's a stunning achievement, as you might imagine. It of course requires the company having two theaters in their complex, and close enough for the actors to get from one to the other. The audience can either see one play one night, and the other the next or -- preferably, as we did -- a matinee and then the evening performance.
There's an additional benefit to seeing them as a matinee and evening performance: if I recall correctly, the "garden party" continues in the theater lobby, as the cast, staying in character, mingled with the audience.
Obviously the two plays can be done separately and even with different casts, and they'd be good. But it also would take away the monumental sense of fun. And it was monumentally fun. (We saw Garden first, in the Goodman's more intimate 450-seat Owen stage with courtyard seating on three sides, and then Home on the 850-seat Albert main stage.)
How on earth do they do it, having the two plays timed so impeccably that the actors can make their exits and entrances and curtain calls in time? The sense I got is that the play Garden is the sort of "control. I noticed a stage manager there with a walkie-talkie and -- being that it takes place in a garden -- there were a few times when stagehands would come on stage alone in character as gardeners and occasionally rake up the leaves or do some "garden maintenance." What I think is that this was used to even out the timing. If the House play was going too slowly, the "gardeners" would take a little longer in their work, directed by the stage manager staying in contact with the other theater. But if things in the House production were moving along faster than in the Garden performance, then they'd have less raking.
Here's the description from the Goodman Theatre website of the story --
"It’s the day of the annual village fair, and the Platt’s estate in the English countryside is buzzing with activity. Up at the house, Teddy Platt has dreams of a bright political future as the new local MP. The only thing barring his path is an urgent need to clean up his private life before the Prime Minister’s special envoy arrives. Meanwhile, down in the garden, frenzied preparations are under way for the day’s festivities. Will the French film star arrive in time to open the celebrations? Will the young maypole dancers pull it off? Who is that lurking in the bushes? And exactly what does go on in the fortune teller’s tent? Once the curtain rings down, the fun continues in the Main Lobby of the new Goodman Theatre as the audience joins the actors at the village party."
The shows are both comedies, though reasonably serious ones that at times delved into straight drama. My recollection is that this was slightly more the case with Home than with Garden, though perhaps that's because we saw Home second. Each play stands on it's own and could be seen and enjoyed without attending the other (another impressive achievement), but clearly they work best together. And both were very good. And as a theatrical experience, sort of amazing.
Here's a short video of rehearsals of the plays by a regional theater company. You can't do things full justice, but it gives a little bit of sense of what it's all like.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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