by Brandon Thomas
Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey
36 Madison Ave., Madison
Through Nov. 18
By ELIZABETH OGUSS
I wanted to see “Charley’s Aunt” at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey for a very particular reason. The 1892 comic farce has loomed large in my family’s mythology for decades.
Since its first hugely successful production, which ran for four years, “Charley’s Aunt” has been revived countless times. It has been adapted for film, opera and pantomime, and made into a musical (“Where’s Charley?”).
The 1940 Broadway revival that starred José Ferrer as Lord Fancourt Babberly (aka Donna Lucia D’Alvadorez) included in its cast, playing the real Donna Lucia D’Alvadorez – not Lord Fancourt Babberly – was Nedda Harrigan.
Nedda was my grandfather’s younger sister, and the director of that production was Joshua Logan, later known to me as Uncle Josh.
My siblings and I knew that Aunt Nedda and Uncle Josh met because of “Charley’s Aunt,” and thought it must be a marvelous play, though we had never seen it.
I’m happy to say it is.
It’s the first time in its 56 years that STNJ has presented the vintage comedy, full of zingers like “…from Brazil, where the nuts come from.” It’s such great fun I didn’t once think about Aunt Nedda or José Ferrer.
It would take a graphical display to convey the complicated relationships, mixed motives, false names, cross purposes, and just plain silliness of “Charley’s Aunt,” but here goes:
It’s the 1890s. Jack and Charley, two Oxford University chums, want to host their sweethearts, Kitty and Amy, for lunch so they can propose to them, but the girls won’t visit without a chaperone.
Charley’s aunt, the extremely rich Donna Lucia D’Alvadorez who has lived long in South America is due to visit him that very day. But then Charley gets word that his aunt has been delayed.
What’s a pair of lovesick chaps to do?
Conveniently, their friend Lord Fancourt Babberly, aka Babbs, happens to show his friends how he looks in an old-lady costume he’s wearing for an amateur theatrical, complete with hoop skirt (which has a life of its own) and a sort of lace jabot that he calls his antimacassar (the delightful costumes are by Natalie Loveland). Naturally, Jack and Charley talk him into impersonating Donna Lucia.
As Donna Lucia, Babbs enchants (or at least her wealth does) Amy’s uncle, Stephen Spettigue, Kitty’s guardian, and Jack’s father, Col. Sir Jack Chesney, who met Donna Lucia many years before, when she was called Lucy. But he doesn’t know that yet.
Both men are broke, and hearing of Donna Lucia’s great wealth, determine to woo and win her, however unattractive they may find her.
My advice if you go: Don’t try to sort it out. Just drift and enjoy, because after a slowish, exposition-heavy start, “Charley’s Aunt” will have you smiling the whole way through.
As directed by Joseph Discher, the play very satisfyingly delivers everything you could want in a farce: delicious silliness, rapid-fire repartee, and an abundance of entrances and exits, including one or two through the window. Brian Prather designed the charming set.
The entire cast is marvelous, but some characters get to have more fun than others.
Seamus Mulcahy as Babbs wonderfully conveys simultaneous misery at having to play-act and devilish enjoyment of the liberties it allows him. His physical comedy is a hoot; just the way he pours out tea is almost worth the price of admission.
Peter Simon Hilton has a much quieter role as the butler (Oxford scout, in the original production) but every deadpan line is perfectly delivered. You’ll have to savor them in retrospect, though, as the plot hurtles along.
John Ahlin as Spettigue wafts on and off stage in the throes of avaricious lovesickness, each time evoking big laughs yet somehow also sympathy, even though he’s a flat-out golddigger. I loved Erika Rolfsrud’s knowing smile as the real Donna Lucia D’Alvadorez, enjoying watching all these idiots act out their nonsense. I still wonder who they thought she was when they welcomed her to tea, but by play’s end, everyone is glad they did. And so are we.
One slight caution: The nudge-nudge wink-wink of Babbs-as-Lucia’s encounters with the two young women gave me momentary #timesup vibes.
But this play doesn’t pretend to be modern, and because its invitation to spend some time in the past is so merry and heartfelt, I was willingly disarmed.