In 1969 Graham Greene published a light novel with this title, which was in the vein of earlier romps such as The Egg and I, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and most particularly – Auntie Mame – all of which featured eccentric central female characters living vivid lives filled with adventure. So it is in this stage adaptation of Travels with My Aunt, by Giles Havergal of the Greene novel, which was adapted in 1972 into a major movie starring Maggie Smith and Alec McCowen. The film was directed by George Cukor, with a screenplay by Jay Presson Allen, who had previously written both play and screen adaptations of the Jean Brodie novel by Muriel Spark.
Jonathan Silverstein has now directed the play version of Travels With My Aunt for the Keen Company and it’s now attempting a run at the Clurman Theatre on Theatre Row (the group of small stages on 42nd Street west of Ninth Avenue). He’s cast it with four character actors who play some 25 characters. It tells the story of Henry Pulling, a 50 year-old retiree from a life in banking, living quietly in Southwood, England. When he meets his Aunt Augusta at his mother’s funeral, he and she instantly bond, and in the course of the play he will learn some shocking family secrets, and he will forsake his quiet life to join his Aunt first at her apartment, and later on a long journey from Paris to Istanbul on the Orient Express as she searches for ex-lovers and other bits and pieces of her past life.
The version of which I’m now writing takes a singular approach to the material. The four actors share both leading roles, bouncing back and forth from Henry to Aunt Augusta in the middle of a scene, sometimes in the middle of a sentence! Accents are helpful, and each actor employs many of them as tools. It’s fun to watch grown men play women, children, men of many national origins as this comical mystery unfolds. The first Henry we meet is played by Thomas Jay Ryan, a most affable actor with a likable and facile face. He works simply, playing a variety of characters and even as the Aunt, he is subtle and most amusing. Jay Russell, Dan Jenkins, and Rory Kulz also play Augusta and William as well as both of Auntie’s lovers and a girl in jodphurs, a guard, a Colonel, a Detective, a vicar, a father and son named O’Toole, a taxi driver, a Frau General named Schmidt and others.
It’s a plot heavy story, and not always easy to follow, though the very busy and talented company of four move about with alacrity and characterize swiftly. The physical production is of very little help. The actors are dressed alike in dark suits with white shirts and matching ties. When their characters move to warmer climates, they all four switch to tan summer suits, again with matching shirts and ties. There isn’t much one can do with a painted flat depicting a street – and having two actors tilt it in one direction or another does not immediately suggest “a street in Istanbul” and a tiny metal Eiffel Tower in a niche high up does not quite make it as “Paris by night.” I enjoyed watching these actors timing their movements so the pace was maintained, it was fun responding to the accents they tried on for size, much as one would create characters by merely adding a hat or a scarf or some other distinctive article of clothing. There is Charley Layton, a dialect coach given billing, and he’s done a fine job, as have his actors
One of the great charms of the film version was its varied locations which gave scope to this frothy tale. With no help from the design department, these travels with Aunt Augusta lack sparkle and offer mild amusement in its place. What we have here is more of a staged reading of the novel rather than a dramatization of it.
Running Time: Two hours, including one intermission.
Travels with My Aunt plays through November 14, 2015 at The Clurman Theatre in Theatre Row – 410 West 42nd Street, in New York City. For tickets, call Telecharge at (212-239-6200 or (800) 432-7250, or purchase them at the box office or online.