Brandon Thomas's classic and unstoppable Victorian farce Charley's Aunt, one of theater's most enduringly funny comedies, positively sparkles in the spit-shine given to it by A.D. Players. Who knew that a guy in a dress could be so endearing?
Obviously, the English. The Victorian Age practically invented the concept of childhood, so it's no wonder it loved its toys. The more wheels, gizmos, gears, and springs, the better. Shiny and well-oiled, constructed like Swiss watches, these contraptions delighted the kids and fascinated the adults. It's no surprise then that the stage would accommodate the craze, and the English farce was born. Silly and improbable and skewering the very class that filled the theater, taking cues from the already established and beloved cross-dressing pantomime, these social sitcoms were all the rage. The toys had hit the stage.
Charley's Aunt (1892) is the mother of them all.
Starting in 1892, Thomas's delightful comedy ran for an unprecedented five years in London, while at the same time it sailed around the globe. It was one of the first international theater hits, charming audiences from Oslo to Cairo. As testament to its utter will to please, Thomas's comedy is as fresh as the very best of Neil Simon, the Marx Brothers, and Kaufman and Hart. Part of its universal appeal is its quintessential contemporary prickliness that punctures the powers that be, whatever country. No matter where the audience, it laughs at the basic premise. The farce never falters, continues to beguile and only gets better with age.
Like the best of its genre, Charley's Aunt doesn't rely on witty dialogue (although it has some of the most deadpan lines and priceless double-takes). This isn't Wilde with his patented rapier repartee, although that greater playwright would borrow a lot of Thomas's inventions for his Importance of Being Earnest three years later. Thomas's comedy springs straight from the situations. It thrives on them: a one-joke comedy, with endless variations on that joke. Thomas's genius is making each variation funnier than the one before. Precisely crafted, the situations build upon each successive one, with timed entrances and exits plotted to the microsecond. Under the knowing direction of Jennifer Dean, her actors not only keep on schedule but turn the timetable into side-splitting hilarity. Always at the service of Thomas, this is sensational comic acting.
As in the best of farces, the plot is a crazy quilt of misunderstandings, hidden revelations, love gone comically wrong, and youth trying to pull the wool -- if not the whole sheep -- over their elders' eyes.
Oxford students Jack and Charley (Blake Weir and Marty Blair) are in love, serious love, enamored of Kitty and Amy (Katharine Hatcher and Leslie Reese). But how to get them alone to woo without the era's ever-present guardians and chaperones? When Charley's rich widowed aunt Donna Lucia, who's lived in Brazil and is now "a millionaire," telegraphs to say she's coming for a visit, they finally have found their excuse to be with the girls. Of course, immediately after, Lucia re-telegraphs to say she's delayed. The boys are devastated. That's when fellow classmate Fancourt Babberly (Kevin Dean), who's joined an amateur theatrical group on campus, arrives with his prop costume and wig. He's to play an old lady in an upcoming production. We grin as the proverbial light bulb goes off with a flash. When Babs enters as Aunt Lucia, in his old maid frock that's edged with lace furbelows looking like a mad Whistler's Mother, the comedy doesn't just ratchet up considerably -- it soars.
Babs is not beautiful in his old bat's disguise, nor graceful, nor very charming. He's basically just a bloke in a dress, hitching up his skirts between his trouser legs to sit indecorously with legs spread, fanning himself like a spectator at a rugby match. The girls immediately take to this cute old thing, confiding intimacies with "her" and becoming her new best young friends. Things turn complicated -- this is farce, remember -- when Jack's impoverished dad (Ric Hodgin) and Kitty's ward Spettigue (Chip Simmons) see money signs and not the five o'clock shadow whenever they look in "her" direction.
Naturally, the real aunt arrives (Patty Tuel Bailey), accompanied by her ward Miss Delahay (Leslie Lenert) and quickly sizes up the situation and pretends to be someone else. Meanwhile, Jack's overworked, droll butler Brassett (Linford Herschberger) is forever talking to us in asides, taking a quick nip from the liquor cabinet, as he barely tolerates the young men's improbable scheme.
The comedy is priceless, and each of the ensemble plays this old chestnut with genuine feeling and dash. Of course it's improbable, of course it's silly, that is its special charm. And we, like the cast, suspend our disbelief, too, which makes the whole masquerade all the more fun.
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The production is sumptuously costumed by Donna Southern Schmidt -- crisp blazers with crests, bowties, and straw boaters for the young men; giant mutton sleeves which should require an extra wide doorway for the ladies; embroidered reticules and fabric parasols for the women; frock coats for the gentlemen; and frumpy widow's garb with frilly lace for Charley's faux aunt. The entire show glides effortlessly on waves of physical humor, which seem to have been choreographed by Buster Keaton. Hitching up his voluminous skirts and brushing aside his lace head wrap as if bothered by a swarm of pesky mosquitoes, Dean skitters around the piano on all fours and peers out from behind the potted palm as he hides from the lemon-puckered Simmons chasing him. This physical comedy is packed with genuine laughs. It plays brilliantly, and is brilliantly played.
More adroit than a Wii, a lot more harmless fun than Grand Theft Auto, and loaded with the nostalgic joy of a Lionel train set, Brandon Thomas's delightful toy of a play whirls and spins with giddy abandon. It's one game we never tire of. It's not universally immortal for nothing.
Thomas's classic farce about a guy in a dress plays through August 19 at A.D. Players, 2710 Alabama. Purchase tickets online at the company website or call 713-526-2721. $34-$43.