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THEATER REVIEW

'Charley' all dressed up

Old chestnut is funny, fresh in an inventive production.

November 10, 2005|Daryl H. Miller | Times Staff Writer

PUT a guy in a dress, and you're bound to get laughs. Few plays have worked this gag to better effect than "Charley's Aunt," the 1892 comedy by Brandon Thomas that continues to beguile on stages large and small.

A mundane start keeps a lid on the laughs in the first half of a production by International City Theatre, but after intermission, the guffaws quickly crescendo, thanks to the comic invention of director Jules Aaron and a cast led by Brian Stanton as the dude in drag.

The story takes place at Oxford. A couple of school chums have just met and fallen for a pair of young ladies. Invitations to a luncheon are issued, so the men can declare their feelings.

Joseph Sanfelippo's Jack Chesney is a strapping, dark-haired young man with a booming voice and loads of self-assurance. Rory O'Malley's Charley Wykeham is softer, sweeter and blonder, with a shy, winning smile. The ladies -- Susannah Hall and Annie Nuttall -- are mirror images of their wooers.

For their get-together to adhere to established rules of decorum, a chaperone must be present. (This is the 1890s, remember.) The guys had hoped to co-opt for this purpose an aunt of Charley's, scheduled to pay a visit. Her delayed arrival sends them scrambling.

Ever so conveniently, another schoolmate -- familiarly known as "Babbs" -- is trying on the costume he's to wear to portray an old lady in a play.

Pressed into service, he becomes Charley's aunt.

There's no feminine softness in Stanton's strong-featured, oblong face, so even in gray wig, granny cap and bulky black dress, he's as masculine-looking as can be. Still, this doesn't prevent two marriageable men -- Jack's father (Joseph Culliton) and the girls' guardian (Bart Williams) -- from courting him.

Aaron maintains a running gag of Babbs' attempts to make a break for the nearest exit, only to be grabbed mid-dive by Jack and Charley and hauled roughly back. And then there's a literal running gag as Babbs hikes up his skirt and takes off at a sprint with the girls' guardian in hot pursuit. Sudden changes in direction are handled Keystone Kops style, with a hop on one foot while negotiating the turn.

Further complications ensue with the arrival of the real aunt (Elizabeth Huffman) and her young traveling companion (Annie Abrams) -- dressed in more of Kim DeShazo's gorgeously detailed period costumes.

The scenario winningly depicts the crazy things that love can make people do. There's no other point to the play, really. But, hey, it's good for laughs.

*

'Charley's Aunt'

Where: International City Theatre at Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays (except Thanksgiving), Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays

Ends: Nov. 27

Price: $32 to $42

Info: (562) 436-4610 or www.ictlongbeach.org

Running time: 2 hours

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