Travels with My Aunt: Theater review by Sandy MacDonald
Anticipating the trend du jour of intensive role sharing, Giles Havergal devised his four-actor staging of Graham Greene’s seriocomic 1969 novel way back in 1989, at Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre. The play—a high-energy joyride for audience and actors alike—has bounced across the pond and back a few times (a recent Menier Chocolate Factory production drew kudos), and it’s now viewable in an optimal, intimate setting, ably navigated by Keen Company’s artistic director Jonathan Silverstein.
All four cast members, costumed in matching black three-piece suits and bowler hats, take rapid turns standing in for retired banker (and die-hard bore) Henry Pulling, whom we meet while seeing his recently departed (and possibly putative) mother off to her heavenly reward. Twenty or more smaller roles get passed around as well, but only Thomas Jay Ryan (who is enjoying a stellar year, fresh off his tour de force in 10 Out of 12), gets to play Henry’s louche Aunt Augusta, who turns up crematorium-side to stake her claim on a long-ignored relation. Flame-haired (you’ll have no trouble applying the mental dye job) and fond of shocking pronouncements (which Ryan delivers with a delicate hand to the clavicle), Augusta soon inveigles Henry into colluding in her shady international dealings.
Though she has much in common with her literary predecessor, Mame, this game old gal (who admits to 76) appears intent on grabbing life by the balls quite literally. Her latest lover's are “superb,” she boasts to Henry, leaving him speechless, and his own balls are soon put to the test on a mysterious mission to Istanbul, via the Orient Express, and ultimately Paraguay, where Augusta’s lifelong love, a Mr. Visconti (Daniel Jenkins, who proves a deft polyglot in terms of body language as well as accents) is on the run from well-founded accusations of Nazi collaboration.
Travels may be Greene Lite, but it’s Greene nonetheless, suffused with ethical murk. Augusta gradually grows harder to like, especially when she turns on Henry: Her impassioned adjurations regarding tolerance (“Never presume yours is a better morality”) evidently don’t extend to her nephew’s deep-seated preference for a safe, stodgy existence. Henry may come around to her outlook at length, but in the process, much humor bleeds away. So warped is the play’s moral compass, it may leave yours disturbingly askew.
Clurman Theatre (Off Broadway). By Graham Greene. Adapted by Giles Havergal. Directed by Jonathan Silverstein. With Thomas Jay Ryan, Jay Russell, Dan Jenkins, Rory Kulz. Running time: 2hrs. One intermission.