‘Travels with My Aunt’ at The Clurman Theatre in New York City

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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.

Daniel Jenkins, Jay Russell, and Rory Kulz. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Daniel Jenkins, Jay Russell, and Rory Kulz. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

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

Top Row: Rory Kulz Bottom Row (left to right): Thomas Jay Ryan, Jay Russell, and Daniel Jenkins. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Top Row: Rory Kulz. Bottom Row (left to right): Thomas Jay Ryan, Jay Russell, and Daniel Jenkins. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

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.

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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.

RATING: TWO-AND-A-HALF-STARS1.gif

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Richard Seff
RICHARD SEFF has been working in theatre since he made his acting debut in support of Claude Rains in the prize winning DARKNESS AT NOON, and he agreed to tour the next season in support of Edward G. Robinson, which took him across the nation and back for nine months. When it was over and he was immediately offered another national tour with THE SHRIKE with Van Heflin, he decided to explore other areas, and he spent the next 22 years representing artists in the theatre as an agent, where he worked at Liebling-Wood, MCA, eventually a partnership of his own called Hesseltine-Bookman and Seff, where he discovered and developed young talents like Chita Rivera, John Kander, Fred Ebb, Ron Field, Linda Lavin, Nancy Dussault and many others. He ultimately sold his interest to ICM. When he completed his contractual obligation to that international agency, he returned to his first love, acting and writing for the theatre. In that phase of his long and varied life, he wrote a comedy (PARIS IS OUT!) which brightened the 1970 season on Broadway for 107 performances. He became a successful supporting player in film, tv and onstage, and ultimately wrote a book about his journey, SUPPORTING PLAYER: MY LIFE UPON THE WICKED STAGE, still popular with older theatre lovers and youngsters who may not yet know exactly where they will most sensibly and profitably fit into the world of show business. The book chronicles a life of joyous work working in a favored profession in many areas, including leading roles in the regional theatres in his work in Lanford Wilson's ANGELS FALL. His last stage role was in THE COUNTESS in which he played Mr. Ruskin for 9 months off Broadway. Five seasons ago Joel Markowitz suggested he join him at DCTheatreScene. His accurate and readable reviews of the New York Scene led, when the time was right, for his joining DCMetroTheaterArts to continue bringing news of the Big Apple's productions just to keep you posted. He is delighted to be able to join DCMTA and work with Joel and hopes that you like what he has to say.