- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 16, 2003

“You know, once in a while, it isn’t a crime just to have a good laugh in the theater,” confided the woman in Row H during the intermission of “Charley’s Aunt.” Truer words were never spoken.

Good laughs abound at Olney’s pert production of “Charley’s Aunt,” directed with buoyancy and flair by John Going. This cross-dressing, Brit-wit comedy has had them rolling in the aisles for nearly 110 years. It uses the stuff of classic farce — double takes, sight gags (one irresistible bit involves an unusually long pair of men’s legs), double-entendres, and quite a lot of skirt-chasing.

Nowadays, with the governor of Maryland’s wife threatening to shoot pop starlets for brazen behavior, it may seem quaint to base a comedy around the premise of two proper young ladies needing a chaperone for luncheon. However, there is nothing remotely prim about “Charley’s Aunt” because the characters are delightfully wrought and, as the English have known since Shakespeare was a whelp, there are few things funnier than a chap in a frock.

Erik Steele plays Lord Fancourt Babberley (“Babbs”), the Oxford undergrad with a fondness for amateur theatricals. His willingness to don an old lady wig and dress to help his chums Jack Chesney (Jon Cohn) and Charles Wykeham (Peter Wylie) woo their intendeds during a lunch party leads to all sorts of comic situations involving mistaken identity and gender-blending.

Mr. Steele not only has the plummy, stiff-jawed accent of the English elite down pat, but he possesses the hilarious facial and body elasticity of a younger version of John Cleese. His performance as Charley’s aunt never veers into screechy camp; instead, he manages to show his feminine side without once letting the audience forget that there is a playful, teasing man underneath the voluminous petticoats and lace jabots.

Mr. Steele’s Babbs is such a waggish, naughty fop that he would be right at home in an Oscar Wilde play or in a movie starring Rupert Everett. Yet his expression of fun is so pure when the girls — Kitty (Colleen Delany) and Amy (Ashley West) — repeatedly kiss and pat someone they think is an old lady, that the matter of sexual preference seems moot. He is merely a libertine in training, that is all.

While Babbs is the jester king — or queen, as it were — of “Charley’s Aunt,” Mr. Steele meets his match in more ways than one in the sublime Halo Wines, who plays Charley’s real aunt — Donna Lucia d’Alvadorez — with affectionate amusement. Miss Wines depends on her natural womanly charms and wisdom to give us a Donna Lucia who is wily and compassionate.

As the two upper-crust swains, Mr. Cohn and Mr. Wylie are serviceable but could use a bit more dash. They seem to be getting the much better end of the deal in their choice of women — Miss West’s winsomely coquettish performance as Amy and Miss Delany as the more serious-minded, yet fanciful, Kitty. Scenic designer James Wolk has crafted a handsomely appointed set of mahogany furniture, Oriental rugs and brass fittings that looks like the Bombay Company showroom. Jack’s rooms are enviably shabby-chic, but then Mr. Wolk ups the adorable quotient by having a charming, dollhouse Oxford cityscape looming prettily in the background.

“Charley’s Aunt” won’t astound you with its fresh insights into romantic entanglements and rich relations who can’t get to meals on time, but it will beguile you with its timeless depiction of innocence and first love.

***

WHAT: “Charley’s Aunt,” by Brandon Thomas

WHERE: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, Md.

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Sundays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.Through Nov. 2.

TICKETS: $15 to $35

PHONE: 301/924-3400

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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