Playwright Brandon Thomas knew one of the basics of farce: A man in a dress equals comedy.
His play “Charley’s Aunt” has that, plus schemes, contrivances, mistaken identities and upper-class British people, all making for an entertaining show sharply performed by Hale Centre Theatre West Valley.
Set in 1905 at Oxford University, the play has layabouts Jack Chesney (Jacob Johnson; double-cast with John Sweeney) and Charley Wykeham (Michael Holmes) head over heels for Kitty Verdun (Eden Benson) and Amy Spettigue (Chelsea Ayn Stevens), respectively.
This is a very proper environment, though, so they can’t invite the girls over for lunch unless there’s a chaperone. Fortunately, Charley’s aunt Donna Lucia (Nancy Parsons; double-cast with Vicki Pugmire) is expected to arrive from Brazil at any moment. But the girls arrive before she does, and the only way to keep them there is to have their would-be actor friend Lord Fancourt Babberly (Curt Doussett) dress up as an old widow and pretend to be Charley’s aunt.
The girls fall for it. Complications arise when Jack’s father (Alan Mangum; double-cast with Andrew R. Looney) tries to woo the “aunt,” as does Stephen Spettigue (G. Ray Jensen; double-cast with David Mitchell), who is Amy’s father and Kitty’s guardian. Oh, and the real Charley’s aunt shows up, too.
The cast (which also includes Stuart Lewis as Jack’s alcoholic butler and Candace Christensen as a woman from Fancourt’s past) works well together and presents a polished performance. Some of the blocking could be reworked, though, as there are several moments when conspiratorial whispers and glances go unnoticed by other characters despite happening right in front of them. (You expect a little of that in a farce, but this production seems to have a lot of selective blindness and deafness among its characters.)
One other liability is that the show’s only laughs occur when Fancourt is onstage, and even then, only when he’s in a dress. The exposition leading to it is not uninteresting, but it’s not terribly funny, either. And once things get going, it’s noticeable that the entertainment factor decreases considerably when he’s not around.
Fortunately, he’s around quite a bit. Doussett, who works with the Provo ComedySportz improv group, displays remarkable comic ability, both verbal and physical. He had a moment or two of improvisation opening night, too, which can breathe new life into a familiar show like this one.