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A CurtainUp Berkshires Review
Auntie and Me
By Elyse Sommer
Now comes Canadian playwright Morris Panych's pitchblack comedy which was a big enough hit at the 2002 Edinburgh Fringe Festival to move on to London's West End, as its Merrimack Repertory Company's production was successful enough to inspire this run at Chester with the same actors and director. The unlikely alliance this time around is between Kemp (Tim Donoghue), a deliciously unlikeable, friendless asexual transvestite and the aunt (Nancy E. Carroll) he has had absolutely no contact with until he received a letter summoning him from London to her bedside in an unnamed, drab city.
Kemp's memories of Aunt Grace inspire more resentment (he's a man with a steamer trunk full of grudges) than fondness. He nevertheless heeds her letter, probably prompted more by the possibility of a small inheritance than familial devotion and because he's not exactly abandoning a worthwhile career (he's a lowly bank clerk) to tend to Auntie's burial and dispose of her possessions (and possibly inherit a few bobs). The trouble is that though Auntie remains bedbound and speechless, she doesn't die and, in fact, seems increasingly more alive. And so, a year after his arrival, Kemp is still in Auntie's dingy house -- bringing her puddings, watching another lonely neighbor staring vacantly out of the window as the seasons pass by.
With Kemp doing all the talking, this could almost be billed as a solo play -- but Auntie Grace not only does get a few lines but plays a pivotal role. Carroll's performance is a master class in nonverbal physical comedy. And it's the performances of both actors that are Auntie and Me's biggest asset.
While the mordant humor that has Kemp freely discuss details of Grace's death and do all he can to encourage it is quite funny, (though not likely to be to everyone's taste) and the second act (the show seems to have added a rather unnecessary intermission during its ocean crossing) is quite poignant, the many blackouts between the many short scenes that end in double blackouts tend to become annoying and the comic elements that dominate the play are essentially variations on the play's single conceit.
Despite the fact that Panych ultimately creates a poignant picture of all the lonely people in this world, many of them dying without a relative or friend at their side, he doesn't manage to make Auntie and Me rise above being a fairly slight, one joke entertainment; as such it would work a lot better at 70, or at most 90 minutes, without an intermission -- and without letting things reach a climax, and then continuing on for several additional turning points. Multiple climaxes are fine and dandy for couples in bed but are less enjoyable in a play.
For our London critic's review of the play's shorter and without intermission production at Wyndham's go here.