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Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Travelin’ Man

FOUR IDENTICALLY DRESSED MEN, their drab suits and bowler hats suggesting the English civil service, line the stage. From them the presence of Henry Pulling emerges. He’s at the crematorium where his mother’s remains are about to be cooked. He is retired, but finds it “difficult to occupy my time. 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 to be at my mother’s funeral.” He meets his septuagenarian Aunt Augusta, unseen by him for decades. She uses the occasion to inform Henry that her sister – his mother – wasn’t actually the woman who bore him. As we enter the topsy-turvy world of Graham Greene’s “Travels with My Aunt,” this will prove to be Henry’s re-birth as he is yanked out of his dull complacency to discover that there’s no life without passion – and nobody more passionate than his aunt.

Dan Jenkins, Thomas Jay Ryan, and Jay Russell
Greene’s “Travels with My Aunt” was published in 1969, a picaresque in an uncharacteristically light-hearted vein. The novelist described it as “the only book I have written for the fun of it. Although the subject is old age and death – a suitable subject to tackle at the age of sixty-five – and though an excellent Swedish critic described the novel justly as ‘laughter in the shadows of the gallows,’ I experienced more of the laughter and little of the shadow in writing it.” 

It was followed in 1972 by an unexpectedly bland film, a rare misfire for George Cukor, especially considering the cinematic qualities of the fast-moving, trans-continental tale. In adapting it for the stage, Giles Havergal opted to present its shifting landscape through mere suggestion, a springboard on which to let the characters of Henry and Augusta to grow.

The Keen company has returned the show to an off-Broadway venue some 20 years after its first such appearance. Back then, Jim Dale and Brian Murray headlined a cast directed by the playwright; here, the Keen Company’s artistic director Jonathan Silverstein helms a piece that, if anything, is more concise in its pacing and less given to caricature than its predecessor.

Although Thomas Jay Ryan is one of the Henry inhabitors, he gets exclusive dibs on Augusta, into which persona he often must instantly change. It’s a bravura performance, as much by way of its intimacy as by Ryan’s completely transparent occupancy of the aunt. Less flamboyant than was Dale, he gets to the heart of the matter quickly with the note of melancholy he discovers within. And his delivery, more Helen Mirren than Edith Evans, elegantly supports her sometimes labyrinthine thoughts, as when Augusta explains that she prefers not to travel by air as “a matter of choice. I knew Wilbur Wright very well indeed at one time. He took me for several trips. I always felt quite secure in his contraptions. But I cannot bear being spoken to all the time by irrelevant loud-speakers.” He hits the word “indeed” wistfully enough to tell us all we need to know about that relationship, and “irrelevant” also speaks volumes.

I don’t want to leave Rory Kulz to the end of the line-up. Although he has the fewest lines, he is a continual presence, often a shadow as he accompanies police investigations here and there. He manages an appropriately wry expression when needed without overplaying, and suddenly and gloriously becomes a doomed Irish wolfhound in a needed moment of comic irony. And he gets a lovely scene-setting sketch in mime towards the finish of the show to cover a costume change.

Jay Russell and Dan Jenkins get the bulk of the Henry time, but Russell is frequently called upon to become a female foil to Jenkins’s Henry. As the teenaged Tooley, he reveals an ability to corkscrew his body like a circus performer. As the winsome Yolanda, younger still, he convinces us that a Paraguayan maiden could quote Tennyson and revel in his sadness. “I like sad things,” she tells Henry, and he’s smitten. Russell’s imperious Frau General Schmidt, in contrast, becomes at once imperious and smolderingly randy. Jenkins gives us a no-less-colorful array, particularly when portraying Wordsworth, Augusta’s current consort, born in Sierra Leone, and Mr. Visconti, a man whose reputation for villainy hardly prepares us for his appearance toward the story’s end.

The novel begins episodically – Greene confessed that he initially saw it as a series of short stories – before coalescing into its virtuosic part two. Havergal makes a virtue of this initial fragmentation, because characterization is signified much more quickly on stage than page and creates its own sense of momentum. Henry’s journey to Istanbul via the Orient Express proves disorienting when young Tooley confides her woes. She’s a sympathetically rendered product of the ’60s, but her behavior is as foreign to Henry as the landscape outside. Not too surprisingly, he will have changed significantly by the time another appealing young woman enters his life.

Signs of life (flowers, pregnancy) and signs of death and dying (ashes, aging) prompt Henry’s changes, yet he’s on a predestined path. A reading of his tea leaves early on suggests the significance of a knife and a cross (“perhaps ... a double cross!”), and the second act kicks off with a palm-reading that promises a significant reunion and an unimportant death. All of these emerge in surprising ways.

But even as the lessons of Greeneland come home, this is also a tribute to the power of the stage, of live performance unweighted by props and setting. We’re asked to do more imaginative work with a piece like this, much in the way that good radio drama demands. Director Silverstein emphasizes as much in the stage pictures he presents, moving the actors with economy, coloring the story with the manner in which they’re placed. “Travels with My Aunt” found an unexpectedly inspiring form as a stage adaptation; the Keen Company’s production gives it an inspired home.

Travels with My Aunt
Based upon the novel by Graham Greene
Adapted by Giles Havergal
Directed by Jonathan Silverstein
Featuring Rory Kulz, Daniel Jenkins, Thomas Jay Ryan, and Jay Russell
The Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd Street, NYC
Through November 14, 2015

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