Poor Man’s Espionage Rules in NCR’s Spry, Fun ‘Travels’

Peeing steals no less than 26 hours a year from our lives, O’Toole declares in Giles Havergal’s adaptation of the Graham Greene novel Travels with My Aunt. He oughta know. He’s been obsessed with such points of order since before he was born, and he carries a handheld calculator to chart ’em lest he forget ’em.

It’s imperative, after all, that a CIA man like him have details like that at his fingertips. Some badboy might not fit the profile someday, in which case O’Toole will be there to swoop him up.

No wonder his daughter’s so screwy.

Henry (James Saba, second from right) and his cohorts (from left, Benjamin Cole, David McBean and Richard Baird) toast Augusta Bertram, Henry’s aunt and a consummate free spirit. Photo by Aaron Rumley.

Then again, the more than 20 characters in this very good North Coast Repertory Theatre narrative have more than a few splinters in the windmills of their minds. Celebrated d├ębaucher Augusta Bertram wouldn’t have it any other way — without her sketchy friends the world over, she wouldn’t know what to do with herself. A Serra Leonean lover, an extortionist and former Axis collaborator and impromptu trips to Paris, Istanbul and North Africa color Augusta’s multi-hued past, which soon envelops Londoner Henry Pulling, her fiftysomething, button-down retired banker nephew.

A poor man’s tale of espionage and suspense is under way, fueled by director David Ellenstein’s linguistic flair and Augusta’s stream-of-consciousness lifestyle — and who, especially Henry, wouldn’t enjoy them in sync?

Henry and Augusta haven’t seen each other in about 50 years — and as they meet up at Henry’s mother’s funeral, Augusta informs him that mom wasn’t really mom. That’s all the psychological marker Henry needs to propel him on a whirlwind globetrot with Augusta, her lover Wordsworth and a few hundred wads of cash in tow. They’re off to hook up with Mr. Visconti, a former Mussolini BFF, and they finally find him in Paraguay. Henry’s life does a 180 amid all the travel and surprise — the dahlias he so carefully cultivated for years likely wilt and die as life begins anew.

“Never presume,” Augusta will counsel her nephew, “yours is a better morality.”

Henry, dear fellow, is finally having the time of his life…

The characters chime in on the unseen Augusta’s unconventional life, not the least of whom is Wordsworth, whose “jig-jig” is a key element for his “baby girl.” Meanwhile, there’s a gimmick — the roster is played by only four actors, whose malleability keeps the action moving, and Ellenstein has them and the set pieces in a constant state of stop-and-go animation so as to suggest the relentless travels.

The quartet are dressed in designer Elisa Benzoni’s formal black attire, including bowlers; even their umbrellas are identical, down to the clasps. The effect is one of wholesale stylization, not only as a mockery of Henry’s forsaken existence but also amid the meeting of like minds. Henry, dear fellow, is finally having the time of his life; in fact, he’s slightly tentative about this exposure to his brave new world, which he’d only read about or imagined.

Giles Havergal’s Augusta Bertram has some sage advice for us all.

And that’s the way James Saba plays him, deliberate in his speech and ever so mildly foggy about the rewards behind so incalculable a set of risks. David McBean’s O’Toole and his clutch of women along the way are key in Henry’s education. Richard Baird’s Wordsworth is as earnest as his other personages are unbending, and Benjamin Cole handsomely executes his duty as the troupe’s footsoldier — he may have the fewest lines, but he’s 100 percent in character as he mans Andrea Gutierrez’s props.

Marty Burnett’s set features a rearward set of projections that convey the various ports of call; the effect is that of a pleasure cruise, in which Augusta has undoubtedly indulged (maybe sometimes against her will). The rest of the tech is fine, with Matt Novotny’s lights casting just the right pall amid Augusta’s formidable presence.

Havergil has reportedly approved a one-act Travels that lasts just under an hour. Frankly, that should suffice, as this two-act mount has its repetitive moments. But the up side prevails in the end; you’ll wish you’d met Augusta in order to regard her for the character she is. “All’s right with the world,” Henry declares in closing — and when you consider the tribulations he’s dodged and embraced, truer words were never spoken.

This review is based on the opening-night production of April 15. Travels with My Aunt runs through May 7 at North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach. $41-$46. northcoastrep.org, 858-481-1055.

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