What in the World?

Irish Rep delivers a joyous adventure; avoid those friends you'll hate, too.

By By: CHRISTOPHER BYRNE

Around the World in 80 Days

Irish Repertory Theater

132 West 22nd Street

Tue.-Sat. 8 p.m.;

Wed., Sat., Sun. 3 p.m.

$55-$60 212-727-2737

 

What To Do When You Hate All Your Friends

Lion Theatre

410 West 42nd Street

Tue.-Sat. 8 p.m.; Sun. 2 p.m.

$18-$26.25 212-279-4200

If you're in the mood for an exuberant summertime romp, you can't do better than the new production of “Around the World in 80 Days” now at the Irish Rep. Playwright Mark Brown has adapted Jules Verne's classic novel and tells the entire story with just five actors and two sound effects technicians. It seems like much more.

Under the direction of Michael Evan Haney, this production, which is a co-production with Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, is a big-hearted affair bursting with energy and creativity that fills the tiny stage of the Irish Rep with a world of adventure. “Around the World” unfolds at breakneck speed that can leave one breathless – and not just from the laughter.

What propels Verne's 1873 novel is the then-revolutionary concept that a person actually could travel around the world in less than three months. What would have been science fiction a few decades earlier could actually happen through rail and steamers that shaved weeks if not months off travel time. The world of 1873 was on the brink of a permanent shift as it became suddenly smaller and more accessible.

Verne found the comedy in the transformation of travel, and much of what drives the laughs in the play comes from the characters trying to maintain their old behaviors in the new order. The proper British gentleman sits having his tea while under attack from Plains Indians as he hurtles across the American continent, for example. Director Haney and his cast capture all of this perfectly, and the play becomes its own comedy of manners.

There are classic elements, as well, such as the high strung French valet, Passepartout, who signed on to work with adventurer Phileas Fogg because he wanted a quieter life, only to find himself buffeted from pillar to post and back again. There is the lovely Aouda whom Fogg rescues and to whose feminine charms he is, seemingly, stoically immune.

In fact, there isn't a national stereotype that isn't exploited for comic effect. It's all so charming and innocent that one happily checks any PC impulses at the theater door.

In the tradition of “Nicholas Nickleby” and more recently “Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps,” the constantly shifting locales are indicated by ingenious stagecraft. Tables, chairs, and costume elements seem to almost fly around as the story progresses. Yet for all the madcap action, everything is always clear.

The tireless cast is uniformly wonderful. Daniel Stewart plays a stiff upper everything Fogg who stays calm despite the chaos all around him. Lauren Elise McCord is lovely as the pining Aouda, the lovestruck Indian maiden Fogg rescues. Jay Russell and John Keating take on many roles each, and deliver every one with skill and clarity.

Yet the show belongs to Even Zes as Passepartout. A comic in the classic vein of Buster Keaton, he is a precise physical comedian with impeccable timing and charm to spare. It's not everyone who can whip themself up into a fit of Gallic pique and still be adorable and hilariously funny at the same time, but Zes manages it somehow.

David K. Mickelsen's costumes are extraordinary, and it would be wholly unfair to omit mention of the Foley artists, Elizabeth Helitzer and Mark Parenti. They provide the stunning sound effects that underscore every scene and add greatly to the overall experience.

And what an experience. Don't miss this tiny show that delivers huge fun.

Sometimes this job is almost too easy. When one is confronted with a mediocre show called “What to Do When You Hate All Your Friends,” the obvious answer is to say, “Send them to see this.”

Billed as an “anti-social comedy,” Larry Kunofsky's lumbering and unoriginal play wants to be a comedy of the sexes for the Facebook generation in which one has a hierarch of friendships and where hooking up is acceptable but being touched can cause someone to freak out.

The characters are all very predictable, as are the situations, and while Kunofsky tries to tap into the inherent insecurity of 20-somethings who think that the better party is always in the next room, he never stays with one idea long enough to develop the comedy in it.

At its best, this play feels like a discarded episode of “Friends” with the names changed. And why do they have to keep talking to me directly? The characters are all boring enough without involving the audience in the conversation. Ironically, one feels that if these really were our friends, we'd hate them, too.

Jason Krueger's lackluster direction on Niluka Hotaling's awkward set just adds to the blandness of the experience. The cast is mostly okay. Todd D'Amour plays Matt, the main character who hates all his friends. He's charming, but the performance swings between depression and anger and is never really believable. Carrie Keranen and Susan Louise O'Connor do decent jobs with unlikable characters.

They are the capital “F” friends who rank their friends with points in a system that was way too complex even to think about. Amy Staats is insufferable as Enid, the lower-case “F” friend, who whines her way through the part. However, I was particularly disappointed with Josh Lefkowitz, who is a brilliant monologist but who has been given characteristics rather than a character to play. He is so talented he deserves better. So, at the end of a long and dreary evening, do we.

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