Friday, March 24, 2006
Theatre Review Auntie and Me gets laughs at the MRT
by Priscilla Stevens
Auntie and Me, in performance now at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre (MRT), is a gloriously complex, over-the-top comedy. Written by Canadian playwright Morris Panych (pronounced "panic") for two actors, it is a series of 37 very short scenes, separated by blackouts of varying lengths. The blackouts establish a rhythm, a little breathless and unbalanced, that both reflects and anticipates the action and character development onstage, allowing the audience time to think, react, and look forward to the next scene. They are as important to the play as the dialogue.
And what dialogue it is. This is a dark comedy: having received a letter from his aunt asking him to come to her because she is dying, Kemp (played by Lowell-born actor Tim Donaghue) quits his "notvery important position" at "not a very important bank" to care for her. The play begins as Kemp enters and sees Grace (played by Haverhill native Nancy Carroll), who is lying in bed. In the course of the next few scenes, he discovers that she is not as sick as she appeared to be in the letter he received, so he begins plotting to kill her. The play spins out in a completely deranged fashion as Kemp reveals his motives and his character to Grace in dizzying monologues reminiscent of John Cleese in Fawlty Towers and Monty Python's Flying Circus. Grace, on the other hand, says and moves very little, but responds with her eyes and head. Two lonely people at odds manage to make a touching connection by the end of the year they spend together.
The set is stunning: it is a unit set of Grace's bedroom that speaks volumes about her character. With brown and pink flowered wallpaper topping gray wainscotting, antimacassars and bureau scarves everywhere, cabbage-rose chintz on the chair, an antique phonograph, and furniture and lamps circa 1930, it is fussy and spinster-like, but warm and comfortable as well. Lighting is sensitively rendered to replicate lamplight inside and night, day, and all kinds of weather outside the windows. The blackouts are obviously timed, and most of them created the necessary effects. Sound is perfectly coordinated and in appropriate volume and richness according to its location on or off the set.
Musical intervals, old versions of songs intended to sound as if they were played on Grace's Victrola, are amusing reflections on the action: "Time Is On My Side" mirrors the discovery of Grace's relative health as well as Kemp's ability to survive her; "Slowpoke" begins playing after Kemp goes into a particularly exaggerated snit about how long Grace is taking to die.
Commanding the stage
The challenge for Carroll as Grace is to command the stage while spending most of the play in bed, and without the benefit of more than about six lines in the entire two hours. For the most part, she managed this well on opening night, playing a silent straight character to Donaghue's manic Kemp. She provided an element of theater of the absurd to link to the crazy and physical comedy played by Donaghue: for each of his actions, there was a seeming non-action of hers, a silent comment on the incongruity of the situation and even of Kemp's existence and her own. The effect was to keep the audience laughing, but completely off balance.
Plenty of guffaws
The exhausting Cleese-like comic method demanded of Donaghue, the erratic rhythm of the play and the fact that he has the lion's share of dialogue make Kemp an extremely difficult role. Donaghue is an adequate comedian, but could stand to push the envelope even further to make this frantic, outsized character really sparkle. Nevertheless, despite a few instances of faulty timing and occasions where he allowed his cadence to slip into a reading mode instead of shaping each line, he did very creditable work. The material, complete with a twist in the ending, is hilarious, and the play moves fast enough so that the audience hardly has time to recover from one guffaw before the next one comes along.
Everybody needs a good laugh, so check out Auntie and Me, playing now until April 9, at the MRT, 132 Warren Street, Lowell. Ticket prices range from $32 to $55 based on the tie and date of performance. Student tickets are $16 and seniors receive a 10% discount. For tickets, call 1-978-454-3926 or visit www. merrimackrep.org.
© 2006 The Carlisle Mosquito