Thursday, January 15, 2009

Around the World in 80 Days, Cleveland Play House

(From left, Anna Khaja as Aouda, Keythe Farley as Phileas Fogg, and Michael Weber as Detective Fix are fightin' Injuns.)

These bitterly cold January days seem to call out for comfort, in the form of comfort food (a sinfully rich mac & cheese, please), comfort cocktails (hot buttered rum made with Haagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream, if you don’t mind), and comfort entertainment.

A prime candidate for the last category is Around the World in 80 Days, now at the Cleveland Play House, a play that requires no heavy lifting by the audience and which enfolds you in volley after volley of easy jokes, slapstick and fractured accents both foreign and domestic. In short, it’s a hybrid blending of Benny Hill, Monty Python, Pee-Wee Herman, Inspector Clouseau, and brief touches of Scooby-Doo. If that sounds like heaven to you, then come right along.

This frenetic version of the Jules Verne classic, written by Mark Brown, is essentially a vehicle for five actors. Four play multiple roles, and two of those players essay more than a dozen characters each.

After the rich and punctilious London adventurer Phileas Fogg makes a wager than he can circle the 19th century globe in 80 days, he and his manservant Passepartout set off on steamers, trains, elephants and other conveyances, meeting a determinedly eccentric assortment of oddballs along the way.

Under the inventive and comically relentless direction of Bart DeLorenzo, Days lurches from one ethnic or national stereotype to the next, but it’s all so giddily juvenile that it would be silly for anyone to take offense.

The pretense of suspense is provided by Detective Fix, who is pursuing Fogg to the ends of the Earth to determine if the gentleman is actually a bank robber. And along the way, Fogg picks up a young Indian princess, Aouda, who was destined to be sacrificed.

The acting is generally robust throughout, with Keythe Farley providing a stiff and glowering center as Fogg, something that is desperately needed in this kind of high-energy production. As Passepartout, Brian Sills milks his cheesy French accent in ways both amusing and cringingly predicable (referring to an encounter with Comanches, he notes, “We smoka the piss pipe.”).

Michael Weber makes the most of a bad wig as the constantly frustrated Fix, and handles other roles with dexterity. And Joe Foust dips into his funny-voice bag repeatedly to come up with a number of clever characters from the foppish Gauthier Ralph to various ship captains, engineers and clerks. His hilarious phlegm-challenged judge is a particular treasure. In this cacophony of high-testosterone high jinks, an impassive and not very sultry Anna Khaja as Aouda almost disappears, which undercuts the romantic conclusion.

Although there is a lot of funny stuff, the effect tends to wear thin due to repetition and overload: there are no real breathers in Brown’s script, and no tendency to ease back on the wacky pedal by director DeLorenzo. Still, some moments gleam brightly, such as a sequence on a train that is speeding to jump a river, with all the action conveyed by the jiggling and “floating” actors.

For those who remember the Mike Todd film version, don’t expect scenic magic, since everything is played out within the confines of a book-lined library where the action starts. Different locations are indicated minimally—a string of paper lanterns for China. And there are some curious production decisions, such as not having any sound effects when the heavily armed travelers are fighting the Indians out west.

But, hey, there are genuine laughs to be had here. And that’s not so bad when our fingers and toes never warm up and our poor, recession-abused finances have almost been battered into submission. Hey, is that mac & cheese ready yet?

Around the World in 80 Days
through February 1 at the
Cleveland Play House,
8500 Euclid Avenue, 216-795-7000

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