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Sunday, May 19, 2013

Around the World in 80 Days

BY THE TIME JIMMY RAY BENNETT breaks into a tapdance to a tune reminiscent of “Anything Goes,” it makes magnificent sense and gently tops everything that’s come before. Bennett is portraying something like his seventeenth character – a stevedore on board the steamboat taking Phileas Fogg to Liverpool – in a madcap “Around the World in 80 Days” at the newly restored New Theater at 45th Street that will be the closest you’ll come to seeing the Marx Brothers on stage in your lifetime.

Jimmy Ray Bennett, Stephen Guarino, John Gregorio,
Emily McNamara, and Bryce Ryness.
Photo by Michael Blase.
Jules Verne’s classic tale has been filmed and staged and staged again. This version, by Mark Brown, distributes 39 characters among five actors, one of whom – Bryce Ryness – portrays only Fogg throughout. Ryness has a high-cheekboned, matinee-idol face that he keeps at an exquisite deadpan as the enigmatic Fogg pursues his journey. But look carefully: we see the flushes of love, the flashes of panic, and, in an ensemble of big, busy faces, he holds his own with amusing grace. Forget David Niven. This is the Fogg Verne must have imagined.

Bennett and fellow cast members John Gregorio (Passepartout and others) and Stephen Guarino (Detective Fix and others) developed “The Nuclear Family,” an improv troupe, which explains the ease with which they face the chaos of bouncing around dialects and relationships, with flurries of costume changes to boot.

Gregorio seizes the best of the physical comedy (and there’s plenty) as he caprices around the stage in absurd Gallic trappings, mangling his English, achieving impossible acrobatics, and giving a sensational bug-eyed leer (hail, décolletage!) when the opportunity presents itself. This is a story with little character nuance, yet it’s satisfying to see how the devotion of Passepartout softens the imperious Fogg.

Guarino is almost the straight man of the piece, his Detective Fix brimming with a Victorian sense of duty, yet able to mock his own character with a deft bowler hat gag. And suddenly he’s Indian or American, drawing characterizations quickly but well to the plausible side of exaggeration. In fact, all of those involved are to be cheered for knowing just how far into silly to plunge without betraying the integrity of the piece.

If Emily McNamara seems the outsider of the piece, there is a price to pay for being the lone woman in a rowdy ensemble of men (ask Margaret Dumont). But the bulk of McNamara’s work is as Aouda, an Indian woman they rescue from a pyre and must escort for the rest of the trip. She seems at first imperious, but soon, in a child-friendly, eleventh-hour revelation, wins her true love. Like Ryness, she well supports the ensemble when it careens through manic gags and tableaux.

The theater itself is a character. The house walls and stage floor offer painted portraits of the story’s settings and time, and a circular screen hanging over stage left sports a succession of clever projections, including a timepiece that’s running as you take your seat. That and the rest of the set was designed by Robert Andrew Kovach, who gives the cast two levels and stairs and ladders, windows and doors and a staircase on wheels, every facet of which is put into service.

Director Rachel Klein shares a design credit, but I have the sense that this is a collaborative piece, as a good play ought to be. The game of whist in the opening scenes is unexpectedly, hilariously stylized; the typhoon at sea becomes a series of ever-more-improbable stills. Klein is also a choreographer, and it shows. Along with a few actual examples of dance is the split-second timing of the piece, which benefits from a dance-directed vision.

Jimmy Ray Bennett and Bryce Ryness.
Photo by Michael Blase.
Special praise goes to Sean Hagerty, whose oversaw the installation of a surround system for his innovative and very effective sound and music design.

This is a story that needs spectacle – it was meant to introduce the technical marvels of the 1870s – and, lacking a movie’s sweep or a large-budget theater’s special effects, this production gets its magic from good old classic theater, rooted in vaudeville and commedia dell’arte.  It’s delightfully presentational. It’s what live theater is all about. It needs audience, and should enjoy a long run as the discriminating alternative to predictable, spectacle-driven Broadway fare, especially if you have kids in tow.

I saw the show while it was in previews, before reviewers generally are welcomed, but the only fault I can find is in the pacing of a couple of individual moments, faults that will vanish as the piece continues to be performed.

Producer Cedric Yau is young and ambitious and brings a visionary’s fervor to his work. “I’m not competing against other theaters,” he told me after the show. He pulled out his cell phone and said, “I’m competing against this.” How true. How sad. But he’s right: if any play can persuade a distracted audience to disconnect from electronics and discover the world that live-on-stage actors can create, it’s this one.

Around the World in 80 Days
A play by Mark Brown, based on the novel by Jules Verne
Directed and designed by Rachel Klein
The New Theater at 45th Street

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