Wonderfully zany ‘Table Manners’ is served at NOVA Nightsky Theater

With director Ward Kay at the helm, Alan Ayckbourn’s comedy makes us believe that every family drama should be staged in a black box.

As one of their final rounds at their current studio space, NOVA Nightsky Theater has staged Alan Ayckbourn’s Table Manners. This is a bold choice for a black box — Ayckbourn’s six-person comedy can border on absurd and requires a tight-knit ensemble of language lovers. The stakes must be scorching, and the timing should be perfect. Ayckbourn’s script has next to no moments of built-in rumination; the audience must draw their own conclusions from the constant barrage of pontification firing from each character. The overarching question of the play seems to be: if all we get from characters is their inner world, how do we choose a side? With director Ward Kay at the helm, Table Manners makes us believe that every family drama should be staged in a black box, and to never ever trust your brother-in-law.

Chris D’Angelo as Reg and Hanlon Smith-Dorsey as Norman in ‘Table Manners.’ Photo by NOVA Nightsky Theater.

Table Manners is part of Alan Ayckbourn’s trilogy called The Norman Conquests — each play takes place in a different part of the same English country home, on the same weekend, and with the same set of characters. The other two plays feature incredibly accessible settings. One is set in the garden and the other is set in the living room. As actors and directors know well, an open floor plan is a double-edged sword. Scenes can essentially block themselves and actors will be inspired to try new things, but the set dressing must be painfully specific. The exact opposite is true in a play set in a dining room. A director can fuss over plates and forks, if the scene requires a sideboard and if the characters need coats, but they cannot escape one thing: the table.

The NOVA Nightsky team opted for a classic wooden dining room set, complete with four straight-backed chairs that move around the table as the action requires. There is no tablecloth, and this was a good choice. Both because it seems that the faceless bedridden matriarch of the family is not used to having guests, and the action below the table is just as important as the action on it. Sarah, played to frenetic perfection by April Everett, usually has her legs or ankles crossed. Sarah is constantly micro-managing her husband and sister-in-law and is usually on the threshold of a nervous breakdown.

On the opposite side of the spectrum resides Norman, played by Hanlon Smith-Dorsey giving one of the strongest performances in the show. Norman is always lounging. He lounges on his kitchen chair, against the table, and has even found a way to lounge while standing. We would not have the pleasure of observing these two very different character choices in a garden or a living room, because gardens and living rooms are already places of leisure. A dining room demands a certain amount of decorum. Some characters abide by this, and others do not. Kudos to Kay, designer Adam Ressa for the set, and the company for choosing the most loaded option and running with it.

One downside of a dining room set is the puzzle of creating natural momentum. One of the best scenes in NOVA Nightsky’s Table Manners is when all six actors are onstage around the table. They have finally decided where they are going to sit and have tentatively begun to eat. This scene is a powder keg, the actors shooting barbs each other until the tension mounts to an almost intolerable pitch. This carefully crafted scene-work unfolds without an actor needing to stand up once. In a play that takes place in a more comfortable location like a living room or garden, standing up is jarring but not necessarily a mood-killer. At a dining room table, standing up simply to make a point is a very strong choice that needs to be backed up by hefty emotional currency. I would urge the cast and crew to look at those moments and decide if they are necessary.

The cast of ‘Table Manners.’ Photo by NOVA Nightsky Theater.

The props and costumes sourced by the technical team and actors themselves were truly out of this world. NOVA Nightsky managed to find a lovely English tea set, complete with a toast holder. This wealth of options gave the actors quite a bit to do onstage. Some of the best costumes were worn by Smith-Dorsey as Norman and Elyse R. Smith as Annie. Norman graces us with an incredibly ugly white-and-gray-patterned shirt and some very wide-legged pants — perfectly period. Annie sports a blue and green tartan dress that conveys black sheep without being too over-the-top. The cherry on top is the soundscape, designed by Kay and Ressa. A highlight is “Love the One You’re With” by Crosby, Stills, and Nash, which perfectly encapsulates the attitude of the play: the characters are constantly seeking validation from each other and rarely get it. Bravo to NOVA Nightsky for a wonderfully zany time at the theater.

Running Time: Two hours, including one 15-minute intermission.

Table Manners plays February 9–10 and February 15–17, 2024, at NOVA Nightsky Theater, 1057 W Broad St, Falls Church, VA. Tickets range from $18 to $25. For tickets and more information, please visit novanightskytheater.com.

COVID Safety: Masks are optional.


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