The Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row
410 West 42nd St. between Ninth & Tenth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through November 14, $62.50
“Never presume yours is a better morality,” Aunt Augusta says in Keen Company’s playful, imaginative, and frugally produced revival of Travels with My Aunt, adapted by Giles Havergal from Graham Greene’s hippie-era story about colonialism, drugs, free love, family, and, in its own way, flower power. Greene called the novel “the only book I have written for the fun of it,” and that is exactly how director Jonathan Silverstein approaches the two-act comedy of manners in which four actors take on some two dozen roles, ambitiously trading off some of the same parts, even within the same scene. It’s an inventive and, at times, confusing conceit that is introduced at the very start, when four men (Thomas Jay Ryan, Daniel Jenkins, Rory Kulz, and Jay Russell), identically dressed in black suits, white shirts, vests, ties, and bowlers, appear onstage. Three of them are sitting down, trading off lines from retired banker Henry Pulling’s first-person narration. “Everyone thought me lucky but I found it difficult to occupy my time,” Henry explains. “I had never married. I had always lived quietly, and, apart from my interest in dahlias, I had no hobby. For those reasons I found myself agreeably excited by my mother’s funeral.” At the funeral, he sees his aunt Augusta (Ryan) for the first time in more than fifty years. She surprises him with a family secret about his birth, and soon the two of them are traveling around the world, being interrogated by the police, meeting oddball characters, and getting caught up in international intrigue. Through it all, Henry (primarily portrayed by Russell) remains steadfast and droll, a boring sort who doesn’t quite understand the depth of what he has become involved in, but it’s too late to turn back now.
Steven Kemp’s spare set is centered by what the cast and crew call “The Monster,” a movable rectangular block that contains windows and a door on one side and a gated entryway on the other. The blue-curtained backdrop eventually rises to reveal yet more fun, along with a few costume changes courtesy of Jennifer Paar. The actors are simply extraordinary, led by the always excellent Ryan (In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer, In the Next Room), who divides his time between Henry and Aunt Augusta, and Russell (End of the Rainbow, The Play What I Wrote), who plays Henry as well as the young woman Tooley, her maybe-CIA father O’Toole (who is studying the lengths of his urination), Miss Keene, and Frau General Schmidt, among others. Jenkins (Big, Big River) is Henry, Mr. Visconti, Colonel Hakim, Detective Sgt. Sparrow, et al., but his main role is the now politically incorrect Wordsworth, Aunt Augusta’s immigrant lover who speaks in a stereotyped tongue. “Why, man, you not offended at Wordsworth?” he asks at one point. It’s hard not to be at least somewhat offended by this Greene character, a product of British imperialism and the British imperialist mind. Late cast addition Kulz (The Old Masters, Empire Travel Agency), in his off-Broadway debut, plays many of the more minor roles, such as a guard, a hotel receptionist, and a Turkish policeman. It’s all jolly good lighthearted fun that never takes itself too seriously, even as it deals with some important topics. “Perhaps a sense of morality is the sad compensation we learn to enjoy, like a remission for good conduct. In the vision there is no morality,” Henry says to Wordsworth. Travels with My Aunt, which was also made into a very different Oscar-winning film by George Cukor (with Maggie Smith as Aunt Augusta, Alec McCowen as Henry, and Louis Gossett Jr. as Wordsworth) offers a sly, sweet-natured look at morality in this lovely little Keen revival.