By CB Adams
“Travels With My Aunt,” a 1969 novel by Graham Greene and adapted into this play by Scotsman Giles Havergal, is 10 pounds of story stuffed into an evening clutch bag.
The micro-synopsis of the globe-trotting plot is that it involves the tentacled way a flamboyant octogenarian aunt tractor-beams her nephew, a stuffy retired banker with a penchant for raising dahlias, into the intrigue of her nefarious-but-not-really shenanigans.
It’s a farcical, preposterously picaresque and broad play with too much set up and a rushed conclusion. The Brits (think Monty Python to Benny Hill), have a special knack for this kind of silly comedy – the kind that breezes along asking for little of the audience, aims for titters rather than guffaws, and reveals English culture for all its myopic, stiff-upper-lip foibles.
It’s also the type of script that actors and directors find irresistible. And who can blame them — the men, anyway? The four-man ensemble gets to practice (and practice and practice) their British accents (plus a few other world dialects) while quick-changing into the play’s 25 male and female characters at the drop of hat, or a wig or a mustache or fedora, as required.
No wonder Greene’s story has been adapted into this play, a radio play, a movie (directed by George Cukor, no less) and a musical a few years back. If he were still alive, “Travels” would have made a terrific one-man show starring Robin Williams at his maniacal, hyperactive best.
Lindenwood University’s summer repertory theatre, ACT INC’s production of “Travels With My Aunt,” directed by Emily Jones, provides a theater experience with a dutiful, earnest exuberance comprising one part “the old college try” and one part “hey kids, let’s put on a show!” This manly ensemble adroitly transitions among the play’s characters while keeping the action moving breezily along.
The strength of this production is in this ensemble, rather than the four individual actors – Anthony Wininger, Ted Drury, Jake Blonstein and Timothy Patrick Grumich – who are (to their credit) interchangeable. This interchangeability at its best is fun to watch, and requires an impressive range of physicality and improv-like energy. The biggest laugh of the night was the creation of a men’s restroom, complete with two urinals, using two stacks of suitcases. At its worst, this interchangeability leaves one with a linguistic hangover that sounds like four bland, generic degrees of Dame Edna Everage.
Staging this relatively short one-act in the round was certainly a highlight. The compass-like octagonal stage was a clear and effective way to anchor each actor with his trunk filled with props, and enabled each to move about as the action demanded. The minimal lighting was unobtrusive in the best possible way and put the emphasis of each scene on the actors’ abilities. Likewise, the sound design was restrained and tasteful.
Unlike the aunt in the title, this play isn’t aging well or all that interestingly, which begs the question of why ACT INC has revisited this script. The jokes about marijuana and sexual promiscuity (and even the occasional profane language) land rather like quaint quips instead of the edgy bon mots that they may have been in 1969. Some timing misfires and line flubs notwithstanding, the obvious talents within ACT INC deserve a better vehicle. To coin an old advertising slogan, this isn’t Greene done right, it’s merely a trifle – Greene done “lite.”
“Travels With My Aunt” continues at the J. Scheidegger Center for the Arts, Lindenwood University, June 22-23.