“Well, keep cool, man, keep cool! We’re all right up to now,” says the character Jack to his friend Charley in “Charley’s Aunt,” playing through June 30 at the Laurel Mill Playhouse in Laurel.
Surprisingly, this play was written in 1892. At first, I thought the dialogue had been updated, but these are the original words, and this is but one example of how this 19th-century comedy comes across as surprisingly modern.
“Charley’s Aunt,” penned by playwright Brandon Thomas, was once an enormously popular work. It served as a vehicle for legendary comedian Jack Benny in a major motion picture, and it won further fans in its Broadway musical version “Where’s Charley?”
Yet it actually started life as a British drawing-room comedy, somewhat in the style of “The Importance of Being Earnest” by Thomas’ fellow playwright who was popular at the time Oscar Wilde.
Just like the phrase “The Importance of Being Earnest” is used as a punchline in the final words of that play, such is the case of this play with the closing words being “I resign . . . all claims to ‘Charley’s Aunt.’”
While this once-famous comedy may have lost its hold on the public, it still retains it at the Laurel Mill Playhouse. Producer Maureen Rogers and her team arrived at a consensus to stage “Charley’s Aunt,” and Laurel Mill Playhouse has performed it before in relatively recent memory.
The story involves three friends, namely: Charley Wykeham (Patrick O’Connell), Jack Chesney (James Olsen) and Lord Fancourt Babberley (Michael Safko).
Lord Fancourt is urged to pretend to be Charley’s aunt, Donna Lucia d’Alvadorez, as a chaperone is needed for social reasons because the young ladies whom Wykeham and Chesney are courting will be present. Chaos follows when the real Donna Lucia shows up! In addition to reminding one of the social-manner comedies of Wilde, “Charley’s Aunt” bears a passing resemblance to “La Cage aux Folles,” in which the male character Albin must portray a mother to mollify traditionally minded in-laws.
Safko is excellent in his dual-role of Lord Fancourt/Charley’s “aunt.” He has wonderful facial expressions of surprise, annoyance and, of course, the “double take.” He is also able to play a female part while, at the same time, flirting with the young ladies in the play, Amy Spettigue, Kitty Verdun and Ela Delahay, all portrayed well by – respectively – Emily Bruun, Rebecca Korn and Megan Safko (the last of these is the real-life wife of the actor portraying Charley’s “aunt”). Safko (the husband!) has an excellent line delivery in his/her responses which mean one thing to characters in the play and quite another to the audience, who is “in the know” he is not the real Donna Lucia: “I’m in a more peculiar position than I could ever explain. I am a woman with a history.” And “You don’t know me! I’m no ordinary woman.”
While the original play implies the breaking of the “fourth wall,” this production breaks it explicitly and often. Actor Patrick Pase (who also deftly directs the production) explained to the Sentinel that his character of the servant Brassett usually speaks in monologues at the start of Acts II and III, but in this version, he comments directly to the audience about the comic, madcap episodes going on in the show. “Breaking the fourth wall” is also achieved by anachronisms in the music.
While some music of the late 19th century is played (Debussy, Mussorgsky and the like), there is also a phrase from improvisational jazz pianist Thelonius Monk. During a chase scene towards the end of the play, the “fast-motion” music theme is used from TV’s “Benny Hill Show!” Like “The Benny Hill Show,” much slapstick is used here, especially in encounters between Lord Fancourt as Charley’s “aunt” and Mr. Spettigue, the would-be wooer of Charley’s “aunt” played with flair by Lenny Dinerman.
Finally, the Laurel Mill Playhouse makes excellent use of its small stage in this production. There are two intermissions, giving the players’ opportunity to change the scenery from Jack’s rooms at Oxford to the college courtyard to Mr. Spettigue’s house. It is essential to pay close attention while watching the play, as there are other mistaken identities aside from Lord Fancourt playing Charlie’s “aunt.”