Of all the names Graham Greene could have chosen for the unimaginative, dahlia-loving banker who narrates his 1969 novel Travels With My Aunt, now at ACT in a stage version adapted and directed by Giles Havergal, nothing could top Henry Pulling. Henry, of course, is practically synonymous with stuffy British conventionality. That's not much of a stretch. But Pulling -- that was Greene's stroke of genius, for it conveys all the latent romanticism and conflicted yearning this otherwise utterly dull character will experience over the course of the play.
And, if you can't get Maggie Smith for the title role (she starred in the movie), Havergal's solution -- to dress the four-man cast in identical bank manager suits and let them act all the roles -- stands with Greene's as another sort of genius. For in doing so, not only does Havergal offer a twist to a story that is, after all, fairly conventional, he turns a straightforward narrative into a genuine stage event. We are entertained not only by the timeless story of an old lady who refuses to give up on either life or love, but also by wondering just how these four guys are going to pull it off.
The answer is by playing the tale of exotic travels, international intrigue, and true love with utmost sincerity and unabashed delight. Of course, if Ken Ruta, Charles Dean, Geoff Hoyle, and newcomer Bryan Close are your four guys, the odds against failure are considerably reduced.
We are introduced to Pulling (primarily played by Dean) at his mother's funeral, also attended by his elderly Aunt Augusta (Ruta), whom he is meeting for the first time. Referring to his philandering father and strictly suburban mother, Aunt Augusta tells Henry, "You were your father's child -- not your mother's." Of course it takes him the rest of the play to decipher her elaborate hints and to claim his birthright as her illegitimate son.
Is he fond of travel?, Aunt Augusta goes on to inquire, launching her plan. He's never had the opportunity, he answers. Hmmm, she purrs, "We might take a little trip or two together." She means Istanbul, where she hopes to engage a little currency smuggling and connect with one Gen. Abdul, who is a friend of her great love, Mr. Visconti (Hoyle), on the run as a supposed Nazi collaborator. Their quest takes them to Paraguay, where she will reunite with Visconti and break the heart of Wordsworth (also Hoyle), her manservant-lover -- a black Bahamian whose opportunism has its limits.
Pulling's tentative correspondence with Miss Keene (Dean), a spinster who has immigrated to South Africa to get his attention, keeps threatening to draw him back into his old life. But the splendid whirl of people and places -- peripheral characters include a CIA operative, his exuberant teen-age daughter (both played by Dean), and, memorably, an oversize wolfhound (Close) -- proves more compelling in the end.
Travels is a triumphant lark of acting and storytelling that is at once hilarious and sweetly affecting. All four actors are enjoying themselves so much it's impossible for the audience not to do likewise. They change characters, sexes, accents -- even species -- with practiced ease, and manage to deliver laughs without resorting to caricature; no small achievement.
Not to overlook the elegance of the show's physical design: The sets and costumes are by Stewart Laing, the lights by Mimi Jordan Sherin. The stage is a low blue-green cyclorama jauntily topped with colored light bulbs, semaphore flags that wave gaily overhead, and pots of flowers set neatly around the floor; in the midst of it a Magritte-like quartet of men, poised at typewriters, act in perfect mechanical concert. Stephen LeGrand's sound gradually provides such enhancements as the chirping of exotic birds to complete Pulling's and our transition into this unabashed celebration of life. It's a first-class ticket all the way.