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A CurtainUp Review
Travels With My Aunt
By Elyse Sommer
The comedy starts with the funeral of the prim and proper narrator Henry Pulling's mother at which he meets his decidedly unconventional 75-year-old Aunt Augusta. Henry's ensuing adventures with that lady are a journey of self-discovery in which Greene devotees will recognize characters and places from his previous novels.
In 1989 Giles Havergal took quirkiness and imaginative page to stage transitioning to new heights. The play was inventively structured to have both acts done by just four actors serially playing Henry and almost two dozen other minor and major characters.
To carry out this inventive conceit the four actors line up dressed exactly alike. After one delivers a line another will will continue the narrative (usually as a different character). Transforming the actors seamlessly and taking on all these roles is the sort of challenge directors and actors love. For audiences seeing new Henrys pop up all over the stage, is a bit like watching a magic act, especially when one of these Henrys becomes someone else right before out eyes, without any major costume changes.
While Travels With My Aunt has never quite become a long-running, much produced hit like the hilarious adaptation of Hitchcock's The 39 Steps, it's had its share of productions, including a 1993 Olivier Award winning production and, a most recently one at London's Menier Chocolate Factory ( review). However, it's only shown up in New York twenty years, so here's the Keen Company to give it a whirl at its Theater Row home.
The company's artistic director, Jonathan Silverstein has assembled a superb cast. I've seen Thomas J. Ryan in a variety of roles, but this is the first time I've seen his comic side. And his Henry and Aunt Augusta are indeed a riot. While he's probably my own favorite in this production, the entire cast of characters is delivered with perfect timing by all on board.
Director Silverstein created an effective set-up for this magic act: The production opens with the actors in matching 3- piece black suits, ties and bowler hats (the work of costumer Jennifer Paar) sitting on chairs backed up by a wall piece designed by Steven Kemp that will move and reveal its own surprises over the course of two hours.
The funeral at which the boring retired banker first meets his colorful aunt and discovers that that the ashes in the urn he wants to plant with his dahlias really belong his stepmother and that his long deaddad was quite a philanderer.
As for his septuagenarian Aunt Augusta, she, may look like Queen Mary, but prefers whiskey to tea and has always had a "friend." One such friend is Wordsworth (one of several standout roles by Dan Jenkins), a huge African who acts as her body servant in every sense of that term.
As Henry is drawn into the eccentric aunt's world and his travels take him to Paris, Rome, Belgrade, Istanbul,Buenos Aires and Paraguay. Among the more interesting characters we meet are Mr. Visconti, an Italian swindler, a pot smoking American hippie girl a C.I.A. operative.
The terrific versatility of the actors makes it great fun to keep all the multi-played personas sorted out. Yet some twenty percent of the viewers at the performance I attended departed at the intermission, apparently not keen on the Keen production. One of the people I met heading for the exit was someone who I know to be an intelligent and frequent and adventurous theater goer. She told me that she found it too difficult to follow the quirky character hopping and was going to read the book instead.
Actually, the first act is not that difficult to follow, but it was actually pretty much complete in itself. The second act, on the other hand, was more convoluted as the casting conceit got deep into Greene's favorite genreses and themes — a mash-up his serious novels with their focus on explorations of morality and mortality and the international thrillers. This did give Silverstein and company a chance to give the somberly attired quartet a whole new look and end things as a colorful very Greenian entertainment.