Set aside the cucumber sandwiches and dry martinis. Bring out the ale and chips. There is nothing droll or subtle or witty about the Guthrie Theater's staging of "Charley's Aunt," which opened Friday.
With a goose from director John Miller-Stephany, this farce rollicks with the broadest of music hall vaudeville. Rest easy, Benny Hill, your spirit is still alive here, taking cream pies in the face.
"Charley's Aunt" is a silly old farce that playwright Brandon Thomas first staged in 1892. Audiences ate it up, and Thomas's slim place in British theatrical history was established. Community and school theaters remain enthralled, and the Guthrie saw the play as a chance to show off talented actors from the BFA training program. If these actors have been rigorously instructed in the art of pulling mugs, thumping reactions and posing, then we are seeing the fruits of their labors.
Miller-Stephany's production crushes any sense of the absurd state of affairs in which two Oxford lads coax their chum into imitating an elderly dowager -- Charley's aunt. Jack (Matthew Amendt) and Charley (Ben Mandelbaum) need Fancourt Babberly (John Skelley) to play the old bird so their young ladies will not flee for lack of a chaperone.
This all spins out of control when others enter the lavish and lovely sets designed by John Coyne. As often happens on the Guthrie proscenium stage, we oooh and ahhh over the scenery -- praise that Coyne deserves.
But how at odds the acting is with this elegance. Yes, this is dopey and ridiculous farce. It is built for laughter. I get it. But farce requires an abiding sense of realism -- a striving investment on the part of these characters to mask their plight. And that ethic should apply even when an actor breaks the fourth wall to make an aside to the audience. Convince us you are really trying. Otherwise the delicate humor wilts in the heat of burlesque. Here we have Amendt, Mandelbaum and Skelley begging the audience for laughs, rather than trusting character and situation.
Only the adults appear comfortable within the universe of the play. Sally Wingert portrays the real aunt with an amused reserve, Peter Thomson is straightforward as Jack's father and Colin McPhillamy allows himself a droll bluster as Spettigue, the indefatigable pursuer of the phony aunt. Charles Hubbell also manages to keep a stiff upper lip as the college attendant. As these characters begin to dominate the action in the third act, the play rounds into something more palatable and almost charming.
I freely admit that this is a minority report -- although I reject any suggestion it is grounded in grouchiness. If you are willing to trust the script, "Charley's Aunt" can be a delightful misadventure. This production? Well, if you like your humor overbaked with a pratfall on the side, it's gold.