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[whitespace] 'Table Manners' Relative Confusion: The cast of 'Table Manners' proves 'family vacation' can be an oxymoron.

Family Fervor

The characters in 'Table Manners' despise and desire each other all at the same time

By Michael J. Vaughn

A GOOD Alan Ayckbourn play is something like a good Marx Brothers movie--you never get anywhere, but the gags along the way are great. Such is the general impression of City Lights' production of Ayckbourn's Table Manners. There doesn't seem to be much of an actual point to the evening besides doing a lot of laughing, which, if you think about, is one of the more admirable goals to be found.

The setting is the modest British home of Annie, who is wasting away her getting-to-be old-maidhood by taking care of her ailing mother. Her brother, Reg, and sister-in-law, Sarah, arrive to liberate Annie for a weekend holiday, but end up short-circuiting her plans when Sarah finds out Annie intends to spend that holiday boinking her own brother-in-law, Norman. That pretty much elevates the tone for the evening: an extended family whose members simultaneously despise each other and can't get enough of each other. The central figure is Norman, who needs desperately to be needed--by anyone. It's almost hard to blame him, too, once you meet his wife, Ruth, a career-obsessed woman with little need for Norman.

Ross Nelson scores a hit in his final directing project as City Lights' artistic director, largely by mastering Job One: perfect casting. Christy Holy projects the much-put-upon Annie with a charming Renée Zellweger squint. Steven Gillenwater goes the opposite direction, playing Annie's clueless veterinarian boyfriend with wide eyes and absolutely zero attention span. Jennifer Erdmann plays Ruth's vain distaste for eyeglasses just short of Mr. Magoo territory, while Celia Maurice makes ample use of her shaggy-dog bangs and delirium tremens skills to color Sarah's self-martyrdom and nervous tension. With his natural George Bush Sr. speaking voice and primate-scarecrow carriage, Jim Johnson always seems like he's cheating--the man is simply funny the second he sets foot on a stage.

As the lynchpin, Norman (Ayckbourn's full trilogy is titled The Norman Conquests), Donny Campodonico delivers in spades, evoking the smooth-talking Kevin Kline extroverts of Sophie's Choice and A Fish Called Wanda. Campodonico may be, in fact, a tad too good-looking for the part, but he finds plentiful other ways to make himself sleazy and unattractive. Ayckbourn's greatest trick is to endow these six enormously screwed-up people with absolutely equal portions of likability. You certainly wouldn't want to be related to any of them, but it's great fun to watch them go to battle. It's obvious that the City Lights cast understood this chemical balance, and did their damnedest to keep all of Ayckbourn's plates spinning at once.

Table Manners plays Thursday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 7pm through April 28 at City Lights, 529 S. Second St., San Jose. Tickets are $15-$18. (www.cltc.org, 408.295.4200)

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From the April 12-18, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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