SALT LAKE CITY — The Off-Broadway Theatre’s production of Eric Jensen’s Charlie’s Aunt, directed by Rusty and Sunny Bringhurst is a farcical comedy of manners. A contemporary adaptation of a nineteenth century play, it takes, if you will, the style of Oscar Wilde to a ridiculous level for a modern audience. The wit is there, to be sure, as is the situational comedy. The play does have flaws, however, and those flaws were highlighted in this production that did not quite achieve the comic potential that is inherent in the original material. Lest this discourage attendance, potential audience members should know that any visit to the Off-Broadway Theatre is worth the trip and the ticket.
The Off-Broadway theatre has a lot going for it. In the heart of downtown Salt Lake City, housed in an old movie theatre, nicely maintained and comfortably spaced, the theatre space is inviting. More importantly, the company has created more than a familiar atmosphere; it is downright familial. It seemed to me, as the show began with the singing of “Happy Annibirthday” to audience members celebrating milestones, that the Off Broadway Theatre was casual, open, and inviting enough to give the feel of a small college theatre program, where actors and audiences are long-time friends with a mutual love of theatre art. It is a participatory audience experience, and one not found in enough theatres. Moreover, it is family friendly. There were strollers parked and babes in arms. At the Off Broadway Theatre, everyone is welcome.
It is clear with this production that it was also a family, or “in-house” affair. Off Broadway Theatre co-founder and artistic director Eric Jensen wrote the production, in which he also acts (though, it should be noted, his part was taken by the understudy, Taylor Fultz, on the night I saw the production). In addition, co-director Rusty Bringhurst also starred in the show. Bringhurst also served as the M.C., of sorts, introducing the play and welcoming and dismissing the audience. It is hard to tell if these multiple duties hurt or helped the production. Certainly it helps to have a playwright close at hand, but I do know that sometimes there’s such a thing as being too close to a play to view it with discernment.
Charlie’s Aunt takes place in England in the 1890’s. Two young college men, Jack Chesney (Patrick Harris) and Charlie Wykeham (Fred Sherman Lee) want to propose to their beloveds Kitty (Clarissa Armstrong) and Amy (Cylie Hall), but need a chaperone for the opportunity. Charlie has asked his aunt to perform the task, but when she is delayed, they men have no choice but to convince their friend Lord Fancourt Babberly, aka Babs (Rusty Bringhurst), to impersonate her for the afternoon. Babs is convinced/physically coerced into doing so, but the plan only works for a short while before complications take place. Chesney’s father, Sir Francis (Chris Alderman), arrives to court Charlie’s aunt in hopes of wedding her for her fortune as does Kitty’s and Amy’s guardian Sir Spettigue (Rob MacArthur). With the help of the butler Brasset (Taylor Fultz), Babs tries repeatedly to avoid the older bachelors and assist his friends in their marriage proposal quests until Charlie’s real Aunt, Donna Lucia (Jennifer Mustoe), arrives with her ward Ella (Alisa Jean Rodgers), who also happens to be Babs’s long-lost love. From that point there is more merry confusion leading, of course, to predicted promises of matrimony.
Eric Jensen’s Charlie’s Aunt has more than one ingredient of a successful comedy: the ridiculous disguise, the wit, the physical humor, and well-used repetition, but there is something lacking. The “punch” too frequently misses the mark. Witticisms are glossed over or given too much emphasis; the reactions are either too strong or not strong enough. In short, the playing is just too uneven for the farce to be a consistently good production. It has its moments—many in fact, where the audience is laughing out loud—but it doesn’t reach every reach the riotous level of a really well-played farce where the laugh never leaves the belly, where it is always ready to burst out at the next piece of fantastical humor. Some of this is likely do to the acting. Bringhurst’s performance is stellar and over-the-top, but his energy is not quite matched by the other performers on stage, who seem much more even in scenes where he doesn’t appear. That is not to say that there aren’t other stand-out performances. Fultz as Brassett gives delivers great deadpan humor, and Alderman as Sir Francis is a very fine character-actor. The women, however, seem a bit more dull, but that is inherent in the script. The ladies in the play simply aren’t given the same amount of comedy as the men. So, too, the directing undoubtedly plays a role in the play’s uneven performances. Co-directing is a difficult practice, and directors taking the stage also creates problems.
In addition to the comedy, the men are also given the violence in the play. Cleary meant to be farcical, the action comes across as merely physical and is distracting. Unlike the “violence” in the Three Stooges or Looney Toones, where the characters quickly recover from any “pain,” the violence in this play is certainly inflicting and takes away from the show by creating an abusive coercion between the young college men that is unnecessary to the plot.
The design aspects of the show are satisfactory. The set (by Eric Jensen, Clint Lehmberg, and Rob Reins) is appropriate for the drawing room farce ot this play: tea tables, overstuffed chairs, and settees complete the scene nicely. Eric Jensen’s Charlie’s Aunt also gives the appropriate “feel” of a bachelor pad, complete with a bar for the never-ending flow of alcohol and a feeling of being unkempt. Act II takes place in a garden, a simple portrayal with vined trellises. Costumes (by Eric Jensen, Janice Jensen, and Rachel Hunsaker) are also suitable for the time period with sufficient detail and attention paid to the ladies dresses and the men’s suits.
Eric Jensen’s Charlie’s Aunt really does have potential to be a fine comedy, and it could be that the uneven energy of the show will correct itself during the run. As is, there are plenty of laughs to make the trip to the delightful Off Broadway Theatre worth it.