Four men bring 'Aunt' characters to life

February 13, 1997|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Since four actors in identical business suits play all the roles -- male, female and canine -- in Giles Havergal's stage adaptation of "Travels with My Aunt," it sounds disingenuous to say the play is extremely faithful to the book.

Faithful in its own fashion might be more accurate.

Graham Greene's charming 1969 novel tells the story of Henry Pulling, a retired British bank manager, who encounters his estranged, eccentric Aunt Augusta at his mother's funeral. Unaware she has spent much of her life on the shady side of the law, conservative Henry embarks on a series of increasingly dangerous adventures as her traveling companion.

The gimmick of Havergal's adaptation is the all-male cast, whose four mustachioed members portray everyone from Aunt Augusta's African lover to a Turkish police officer to a pregnant teen- aged hippie to, well, Aunt Augusta herself. Though only one actor plays Augusta, all four get to play Henry -- sometimes simultaneously, as they end each other's sentences or, in one case, hiccup as a quartet.

At Columbia's Rep Stage, where the 1989 script is receiving its area premiere under Kasi Campbell's precise direction, the result comes across as more of an intriguing acting exercise -- you constantly find yourself musing, "Who is he this time?" -- than a work that is genuinely dramatic in its own right.

Some of the play's difficulties are inherent in the material. Greene's novel consists largely of storytelling. The 1972 movie starring Maggie Smith and Alec McCowen got around this with flashbacks (taking considerable liberties with the plot in the process).

Havergal chooses a middle course by adhering closely to the story, but having the guys in the suits act out most of Augusta's tales. The rationale is apparently that, since this is Henry's story, it is told by a cast of Henry's. One additional problem, however, is that the script repeatedly requires the characters to refer to themselves in the third person -- an awkward device that smacks of literary preciousness.

Such shortcomings aside, several of the performers prove as amusing as their stories, particularly Bruce Nelson, whose impressive versatility is demonstrated in a scene in which, merely by turning around, he transforms himself from a veteran CIA agent into a winsome 14-year-old South American girl.

Of the four, Bill Largess does the most believable job conveying Henry's priggish dismay at his aunt's antics, and he also has a grand time portraying the aforementioned canine -- a slobbering Irish Wolfhound. Brian McMonagle leaves his most distinctive mark as a Cockney-spouting police sergeant.

Only Nigel Reed's fey Aunt Augusta feels excessive. Unlike Robert Dorfman in Center Stage's current production of "Romeo and Juliet," which also calls for a man in a suit to portray a woman (Juliet's nurse), Reed never convincingly metamorphoses into the opposite gender.

Lou Stancari has designed a ramshackle garden set that serves the play's varied locales well. Overall, it's easier to pretend that this single set is, say, the Orient Express or French cemetery than to pretend that Reed is Miss Augusta. But then, the whole point of "Travels with My Aunt" is that life isn't worth living unless you take risks, and Rep Stage has certainly followed that advice.

'Travels with My Aunt'

Where: Rep Stage, Theatre Outback, Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; matinees at 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through Feb. 23

Tickets: $13 and $16

Call: (410) 964-4900

Pub Date: 2/13/97

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