By CB AdamsContributing Writer
“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.
Photo by John Lamb
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
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.”
Photo by John Lamb “Travels With My Aunt” continues at the J. Scheidegger Center for the Arts, Lindenwood University, June 22-23.
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.