Likely you weren't in London in December 1892. But if you had been, you'd have been clamoring to get your hands on the theater season's hottest ticket. Charley's Aunt, the fresh new farce by Brandon Thomas, was a bona fide smash hit that would sashay its way to a record-breaking four-year run in London's West End. Tickets for Charley's Aunt were tough to come by that December. You'd have had an easier time slipping into Widower's Houses, the first play ever to be staged by a young theater critic named George Bernard Shaw. (Based on the response to this fledgling effort, his future as a playwright didn't look so bright.)
But time, as they say, will tell. Although Thomas wrote numerous scripts and songs, today he is remembered (if at all) as a one-play wonder. By contrast, the prolific Shaw went on to pen scores of influential comedies and dramas, including (sixteen years later, in 1908) Getting Married. Charley's Aunt is — and Getting Married was — on view this summer at Act Inc. Based solely on these two stagings, a viewer might conclude that the now-forgotten Thomas was a superior playwright to the Nobel Prize-winning Shaw. At age 121, Charley's Aunt remains deft, clever, engaging. Getting Married is painfully decrepit.
There's no need to dwell on Getting Married, because it closed last weekend. For the record, suffice to say that enduring this incoherent jumble was about as much fun as having your car break down in the salt flats of Death Valley. A theatergoer felt desolate and lost, especially in the aimless and seemingly endless Act Two. Certainly Charley's Aunt benefits by comparison to that clock-stopping experience.
But Charley's Aunt is not good solely because its sister production was poor. The play still works. No surprise that it remains the great-granddaddy of cross-dressing farces: The brisk plot gallops along. As directed here by Emily Robinson, the production keeps furniture to a minimum so that the actors can move spryly across the stage. Indeed, the entire evening might be described as minimalist. So too is Jack Dryden's performance in the pivotal role of Lord Fancourt Babberley, a University of Oxford undergrad who's cajoled into impersonating Donna Lucia D'Alvadorez, a rich widow from Brazil ("where the nuts are"). Dryden doesn't bother with a phony accent or an affected voice. He lets his dress and wig do the work. The underlying premise here is that if you're not willing to buy into the fundamental notion that clothes make the man, adornment won't help. Although Dryden does not take comic advantage of his hand fan, from the moment he enters, he has enough confidence in what he's doing to take his time. His very demeanor informs us that he will control the play, not vice versa.
Dryden receives sturdy support from Richard Lewis. As a former military officer who is persuaded by his son Jack (Reginald Pierre) to woo Donna Lucia, Lewis comes across as a hybrid between Jerry Stiller and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (This is probably the first time those two ever appeared together in the same sentence.) Donna Lucia (Jane Sullivan) also is courted by the money-grubbing Stephen Spettigue, portrayed here by Jesse Russell. Russell's physical similarity to Charles Durning provides a direct link to Sidney Pollack's cross-dressing 1982 comedy Tootsie, in which Durning proposed marriage to a gussied-up Dustin Hoffman. That very linkage reminds us of the long and apparently honorable tradition of hot-blooded men in drag.
Perhaps there's no point in complaining about the air-conditioning system that droned on throughout both productions, making dialogue difficult to hear, because this is Act Inc.'s final season in Fontbonne University's black-box theater. Next summer it is relocating to Lindenwood University in St. Charles, which will distance (if not sever) the company from its core audience. At least Act Inc. is departing Clayton with a smile.
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