Mark Kelley and Rachel Hartmann in Alan Ayckbourn’s Round and Round the Garden. Opens Fri, Feb 11 — Sat, Feb 26, Thurs — Sat at 8pm, Sun at 2pm

Play:        “Round and Round the Garden”

Group:        Black Cat Theatre

Venue:        Black Cat Theatre, 2810 Sutton Blvd.

Dates:        February 24, 25, 26

Tickets:    $20-$25; contact 314-781-8300 or

Story:    It’s a weekend in the country for a motley British family who meet at Mother’s Old Victorian Vicarage.  Living with her invalid, intemperate mother at the house is Annie, who pops out from caring for dear old mum to chat with her neighbor and friend Tom.  Annie is smitten with Tom, but the nerdy veterinarian is perennially pre-occupied with caring for feathery and furry types rather than those unpredictable humans.  Soon after Annie’s womanizing brother-in-law Norman enters the lavish garden at Mother’s place and promptly but futilely attempts to entice Annie into spending the weekend with him down the road.

    Annie’s brother Reg and sister-in-law Sara bring their considerable luggage along for the weekend visit.  Finally, Norman’s wife Ruth, sister to Sara and Reg and, according to Reg the familial winner in the ‘looks’ category, makes her appearance.  In the course of the weekend, Norman pursues all three women, Tom discovers he may have feelings for Annie, Ruth confuses Tom with her mocking flirtation and Reg spends an inordinate amount of time searching for a ‘fuse.’

Highlights:    Part of a trilogy called “The Norman Conquests” by Alan Ayckbourn, “Round and Round the Garden” premiered in 1973 and has enjoyed revivals as recently as 2009 on Broadway, where the trilogy garnered a Tony Award for Best Revival.  While Ayckbourn wrote “Round” in tandem with “Table Manners” and “Living Together,” with each performed in a different part of the same house on the same weekend, each stands alone and can be presented as a single unit.

    Such is the case with Black Cat Theatre’s rollicking rendition of “Round and Round the Garden,” which artistic director Edie Avioli keeps moving at a merry pace that has liberal doses of energy and a bountiful supply of laughs.

Other Info:    Todd Schafer’s elaborate set design paints a handsome portrait of a country garden, complete with copious foliage and a marble patio that he bathes with his own judicious lighting.  Bonnie Kruger contributes some amusing costumes, including the dapper gear worn by Reg and the button-down wardrobe of Tom that matches his absent-minded personality.  Ryan Parris provides a sprightly classical musical score that gives a ‘proper’ tone to the wackiness on stage.

    Ayckbourn’s script is full of silly situations and farcical gimmicks, primarily set in motion by Norman’s surging testosterone levels.  To work best, it requires expert timing and droll delivery of his amusing dialogue, and that is handled with aplomb by Avioli’s sprightly cast.  Mark Kelley as Norman is the centerpiece for this particular frolic, with exaggerated expressions and utmost use of his limber, lanky body for physical humor that bring to mind a young Dick Van Dyke.

    Justin Ivan Brown is a stitch as the easily confused Tom, who’s never sure what exactly to make of human romance.  Scott Sears is consistently entertaining as Reg, whether telling a corny joke or drolly under-reacting to whatever situation he stumbles in upon.  Kelley’s real-life wife, Christina Rios, has an hysterically funny scene with Norman as his no-nonsense sister-in-law Sara, while Ellie Schwetye delights as Norman’s wife Ruth in a faux seduction of Tom.  And as Annie, Rachel Hartmann is the eternal optimist who keeps thinking the good thoughts regardless of her frustrations with Tom and Norman.

    “Round and Round the Garden” is the type of light fare that plays well in the casual Black Cat cabaret atmosphere.  When it’s performed as well as it is in this presentation, one’s a bit reluctant to leave that goofy garden all too soon.

Rating:    A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.