‘Three Men in a Boat (To say nothing of the dog)’ at Synetic Theater

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FOUR STARS
Cultish musical enthusiasts have The Rocky Horror Show, movie-goers have Night of the Living Dead, 60’s rockers had The Grateful Dead, and literary enthusiasts have Three Men in a Boat (To say nothing of the dog), an 1889 travelogue written by English humorist Jerome K. Jerome (and yes, this funny tale even has a dead body).

Rob Jansen (Harris), Tom Story (Jerome), Alex Mills (Montmorency,) and Tim Getman (George). Photo by Koko Lanham.
Rob Jansen (Harris), Tom Story (Jerome), Alex Mills (Montmorency,) and Tim Getman (George). Photo by Koko Lanham.

Now, like so many crossover cult experiences–Rocky Horror becomes a Picture Show, the Living Dead becomes a musical–Three Men in a Boat has become a comedy–at the International Theatre in Vienna, at The Original Theatre in England, and at Synetic Theater in Crystal City (And it has words, lot of words [to say nothing of the dog]).

Directed by Derek Goldman, who also adapted this version of the novella to the stage, the production gets you to giggling with the first idle non-sequitur, then zaps your funny bone with its crisp theatricality. Even though the show, like the novella, occasionally slips into sentimentality or sags from the verbiage, the humorous motifs, like a literary cavalry, always arrive in the nick of time.

The story itself is not compelling by any stretch of the imagination.  Written by Jerome, a wannabe man-of-letters, soon after his marriage and honeymoon on the Thames, the account covers a holiday trip up the river, complete with mentions of important sites and famous landmarks.  For the novella, Jerome replaces his new bride with two trustworthy old men friends; then, he added a fictional dog.

Most importantly, however, Jerome adds humorous anecdotes and witty verbiage. This humor transforms an otherwise serious account into a fun blockbuster (the novella sold million copies in its first 20 years) and gave the young writer the revenue he needed to give up his life as a struggling actor, a teacher, and a solicitor’s clerk.

The cast is led by Tom Story as Jerome, our storyteller. Story’s work is sharp and delightful, as he creates the mentality of the would-be idle Englishman; in fact, he is so idle that his first bit of business is to discuss with the audience his hypochondria.  He is a veritable hospital of disease and malady.

Jerome’s two friends, George and Harris, also suffer from a rash of ailments, but nothing compared to Jerome: they wouldn’t need a hospital–a small country clinic would do. Tim Getman plays George, and he portrays him with the large guffaws that a man who works (or rather sleeps) at a bank ten to four would have. Rob Jansen plays Harris, another extremely idle fellow, and Jansen’s work exudes laziness.

From the opening lights, all three actors capture the farcical nature of the production with their single-minded obsession with “not lifting a finger.” And, to be sure, the funniest moments in the play are the most farcical.  Whether we are watching three grown men setting up a tent (or rather a Thames Camping Skiff) and literally ending up in bondage or trying to open a can of pineapple without an opener, either by hurling themselves upon it professional wrestling style–say with the Chop Drop or the Elbow Smash–or by getting the family dog to chomp.

And that bring us to the dog, Montmorency. Played by Alex Mills, this terrier is a highlight of adorableness. Always with the sweetest of faces, he offers the men a captured, and now dead, river rat to add to their Irish stew; on a chilly Thames’ night he snuggles with Harris on a small divan; and then, in one of the funniest moments of the play, receives his comeuppance when his homicidal instincts towards felines confronts a roughneck rural kitty (played by Story) more than capable of scratching a dog’s nose off.

It is the overwhelming force of the production’s fantastically farcical elements that leaves the sentimental and sometimes serious moments feeling a bit detached. I mentioned the dead body floating down the Thames; well, it is difficult to imagine these oh-so-idle young fellows grappling with the bloated death of a teenage girl suffering from too much shame with anything approaching seriousness.

Tom Story (Jerome) and Alex Mills (Montmorency). Photo by Koko Lanham.
Tom Story (Jerome) and Alex Mills (Montmorency). Photo by Koko Lanham.

The production team assembled for Three Men has done a great job.  Scenic Designer Lisi Stoessel has developed what appears to be a realistic 19th century drawing room set that then transforms into library and boat. Costumes by Ivania Stack have that strange combination of what might be the idle rich, but is really the idle want-to-be-rich. Lighting Designer Brittany Diliberto and Projection Designer Shane O’Loughlin add nicely to the scenography, as does Sound Designer Thomas Sowers. All three collaborate on some truly wonderful spring thunderstorms.

Three Men in a Boat (To say nothing of the dog) will certainly tighten up as the run continues. Though more than a century old, its humorous and witty prose continues to delight the ear, and Goldman’s theatrical presentation and physically robust style keeps the audience giddy.

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Three Men in a Boat (To say nothing of the dog plays through June 8, 2014 at Synetic Theater-1800 South Bell Street in Arlington, VA (At the Crystal City Metro). For tickets, call the box office at (866) 811-4111, or purchase them online.