It's not surprising that Graham Greene's colorful, witty 1969 novel "Travels with My Aunt," which was quickly turned into a movie, eventually found its way onto the stage as well. But there is something deliciously unexpected about the way Scottish playwright, director and actor Giles Havergal devised his theatrical adaptation of the book in 1989.
Even those already in on the joke are likely to be amused all over again by Rep Stage's finely polished, season-opening production of the play, which uses only four male actors to portray more than 25 characters — an offbeat touch in keeping with what remains a disarmingly offbeat story. If Havergal did not fashion an instant classic, he managed to preserve the flavor of the original, while never settling for just an actors' showcase.
The aunt of the title is the irresistible flip side of the imposing relative who bears the same first name in Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest."
Having taken notions of prim and proper to an impossibly high level, the Aunt Augusta from the immortal Wilde play can only huff and puff over the turn of events generated by her conniving nephew. The Aunt Augusta that Greene created does all the plot-propelling herself, without the slightest concern for what others might think, and she delights in dragging her reluctant, thrill-averse relation into one strange episode after another.
This unconventional Augusta is an Auntie Mame for the 1960s, still teaching a variation on the life's-a-banquet-and-most-poor-suckers-are-starving-to-death message.
Henry, the dahlia-daffy banker who has retired from life as much as from his long-held job, takes a little while to appreciate the finer points of that creed. He's a little slow, too, figuring out the real identity of the eccentric woman he meets so fatefully at his mother's funeral (the clues pop up faster than you can say "Brighton," the first destination in his unexpected travels).
But Henry gradually unbuttons and unwinds, getting increasingly caught up in the sort of international intrigues usually reserved for spies (his aunt has blazed quite a trail of quirky lovers and suspect finances over the decades).
The trickiest bit of the play involves Henry's character. He is alternately, even once in a while simultaneously, portrayed by all four actors — each of them mustachioed and identically costumed throughout in three-piece business suits. This keeps the focus or tone of the narration and dialogue shifting around from scene-to-scene, but, for the most part, the device works smoothly.
Some folks, especially those with memories of Maggie Smith's extravagant portrayal of Augusta in the George Cukor movie, might balk at the idea of experiencing a version of Greene's book that doesn't include a role for a great character actress (and many a great character actress must surely bemoan the opportunity Havergal denied them). Have no fear.
It takes no time at all to adjust to the notion of the audacious aunt being impersonated by a man, even one with nary an item of drag to boost the illusion. Nigel Reed conjures up Augusta in all her glory, eccentricity and warmth, using little more than the shift of a leg or lift of an eyebrow. His uncanny performance suggests how the late, adorable British actor John ( "Are You Being Served?") Inman might have impersonated Maggie Smith playing Aunt Augusta.
Reed, returning to the role he first tackled for a Rep Stage production in 1997, is joined by another veteran of that earlier cast, Bill Largess, who makes an especially sympathetic impression in his turns as Henry. He also makes an oddly convincing dog named Wolf.
Lawrence Redmond bounds through a dozen characters, among them two of Augusta's high-maintenance lovers, with aplomb. Michael Russotto likewise shines in a variety of assignments and accents, including a female flower child, but wins his biggest laugh in a silent part — shimmying across the stage in a white dinner jacket dispensing confetti as he goes.
That's one of the cutest touches in the staging, directed by Kasi Campbell (she was at the helm for the 1997 production as well). James Fouchard's understated set design enables the actors to bring scenes to life with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of wry imagination; a passage involving a careening car and a case of the hiccups is a notable example. Dan Covey's lighting design is an integral part of the production's visual success.
Incidental music is deftly applied, starting before the curtain rises, when strains of Vaughan Williams' "The Lark Ascending" can be heard. A particularly apt choice, that. Aunt Augusta is quiet the exotic bird, and the play, well, it's a lark of a different sort.
If you go
The Rep Stage production of "Travels With My Aunt" runs through Sept. 12 at the Studio Theatre, Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway. Columbia. Tickets are $20 to $30. Call 410-772-4900 or go to repstage.org.
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