Arts & Events

EYE FROM THE AISLE: Graham Greene’s Travels with My Aunt at MASQUERS--charming, fluid

By John A. McMullen II
Thursday June 07, 2012 - 04:39:00 PM

Travels with My Aunt at the Point Richmond MASQUERS PLAYHOUSE is a charming and fluid enactment of the Graham Greene entertainment novel adapted by British actor/playwright Giles Havergal.

You may recognize the novelist as the author of The Third Man (1949), The End of the Affair (1951), The Quiet American (1955), and Our Man in Havana (1958), all of which have been adapted for film.

If you like droll Masterpiece Theatre comedies, this is your cuppa’. 

Our hero is Henry Pulling, a mild-mannered, 50-ish British bachelor bank-manager from Brighton who has taken early retirement. We find him at his mother’s funeral where he meets his aunt with whom he has had little acquaintance. She is a former actress with an African house-servant (who may be more than just her factotum), and who has led –and may well still lead—an interesting life of international intrigue. He embarks on a journey with her on the Orient Express to Istanbul, and later, across the pond to the Argentine and a world of spies, smugglers, and family secrets.  

Travels with My Aunt has a decidedly more off-beat comic flavor than other Graham Greene novels, many of which are based on religion and espionage—Greene was both a convert to Catholicism and worked for MI-6 (as in James Bond) while a foreign journalist. 

Director John Hull has chosen to have all four male actors play the twenty-odd roles. They all play Henry Pulling, exchanging the role without any confusion to the audience, as well as playing other roles of various ages and genders and species with convincing and often laugh-provoking aplomb. It makes for engaging staging and keeps things humming. 

The four men—Peter Budinger, Coley Grundman, Robert Love, and DC Scarpelli—are dressed in identical black suits and ties to enhance their interchangeability. Joan Nelson as Aunt Augusta Bertram is coutured in multiple, colorful, and fashionable changes of apparel as designed by Maria Graham. The set is a blue-lit bare stage with four chairs and a bench that appear/disappear as needed, sometimes with fanfare and laughter but always unobtrusively. This type of theatre primes the imagination.  

The lighting design of Ellen Brooks is subtle and does justice to the play, with one magic moment of a glass revolving ball eclipsing the moon into a crescent. 

Notable character changes are Budinger’s 18-year-old hippie girl to an Ugly American CIA agent to an Irish Wolfhound, Grundman’s Cockney cabbie, Robert Love’s female fortune teller. Scarpelli, a 2011 San Francisco Bay Area Critics Circle award winner, is the main draw, shape-shifting between Aunt Augusta’s butler/lover from Sierra Leone, a 14 year old genteel beauty from Buenos Aires, a hulking constable, and more.  

MASQUERS PLAYHOUSE garnered five Critics Circle awards for last season, and they have seriously upped their game with recent productions.  

Alas, as charming as it is, it could have been better with a little dialect coaching. Only Scarpelli has a consistent and passable British Received; the others vary from hit-and-miss to total surrender. For instance, the pronunciation of “aunt” alternates between the insect homophone and the pronunciation that sounds affected to some American ears. There is a uniformity of pace that makes it plod rather than pop, and the production could profit from changes of rhythm. Its tone is light-hearted throughout, even though there are moments that cry out for emotional poignancy. Aunt Augusta’s character of a wild-child and former actress is played with unflappable sophistication by Ms. Nelson, but we wished for a little more “Auntie Mame” to appear. The cast’s deliberate delivery of the lines slows the plays—Brits speak more quickly that the average American—and it runs a little past 10:30 pm.  

Nonetheless, the production does not bore for a moment, and kept me engaged. The audience enjoyed it: I overheard many “that-was-great” comments on my way out of the theater. 

TRAVELS WITH MY AUNT by Graham Greene  

Adapted for the stage by Giles Havergal 

Directed by John Hull 


105 Park Place, Point Richmond (510) 232-4031 

Playing through July 7 

Set design John Hull, costume design Maria Graham, lighting design Ellen Brooks, lighting operator Gill Stanfield, sound design Joseph Ponder; stage management Joe Torres. 

WITH: Peter Budinger, Coley Grundman, Robert Love, Joan Nelson, and DC Scarpelli 


John A. McMullen II is a member of SFBATCC, American Theatre Critics Association, and Stage Directors and Choreographers Society. E J Dunne edits.