In even the fizziest of theatrical confections, it helps to cut the froth now and then with a dash of bitters, which helps it all go down quite swimmingly.
Such is the case with Synetic Theater’s Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog), a ripping striped-pants-and-straw-boater yarn in which three friends in late Victorian London—plus a feisty fox terrier—row up the River Thames on a lark and find the experience anything but relaxing. It is not easy to maintain the archness required in such a tale without trying an audience’s patience, but they manage it at Synetic and make it look pretty easy, to boot.
Based on the 1889 book by Jerome K. Jerome, and adapted for the stage and directed by Derek Goldman, the production has a lightness and a penchant for witty aphorisms reminiscent of Jerome’s contemporary Oscar Wilde, but with a more down-to-earth feel for characters and situations. Goldman’s distillation of the book, which preserves the narrator’s tone, and his direction of a verbally adept and physically lithe cast make this comic travelogue a real trip indeed.
Taking the author’s part is our narrator, Jerome. The redoubtable Tom Story, who plays such period roles with panache, doesn’t disappoint as the slightly foppish Jerome—a fellow with a good heart and a thoughtful bent. Jerome explains to the audience that he and his two best friends, George (Tim Getman) and Harris (Rob Jansen), were worker drones in London, bored with life, too bourgeois to attend aristocratic parties. None of them actually does much of anything—except for George, who “works—or sleeps—at a bank.” Harris is the gloomy Gus in the trio, always expecting the worst; Jerome is the philosopher.
As they sat in his parlor one day and puffed on their pipes, Jerome says, their ennui weighed heavily upon them. He himself was just recovering from a bout of extreme hypochondria, imagining himself ill with everything from diphtheria to cholera. Drastic measures were needed to snap the three friends out of their funk.
A rowing trip up the Thames seemed just the ticket, and in a long flashback, we see it unfold in disastrous detail. Harris, of course, asks, “What if it rains?” but is ignored. With the bouncy-barky participation of Jerome’s pet terrier, Montmorency—played by Synetic’s loose-limbed Alex Mills in fuzzy gray ears and tail—the would-be adventurers plan their trip. Provisions must include bread, bacon, butter, jam, and beef, but, as Jerome cautions, “No cheese because it makes too much of itself … [and, a moment later, to the audience] but I’m glad we took the whiskey.”
The simple drawing room set (scenic design by Lisi Stoessel), with a chaise, a settee, two small cabinets, and a decorative folding screen, becomes their vessel with a simple shift of the furniture. The projections on the screen start moving—Big Ben, Tower Bridge—as Jerome and Harris row laboriously upstream to the point where George will meet them after work.
The high energy involved in preparing for the trip in Jerome’s parlor drops a notch or two once the fellows hit the river; the longueur, however, doesn’t last long. A series of comical crises soon plague the adventurers: No mustard for the beef—tragedy! No opener for the tin of pineapple—horrors! The slapstick ballet (the choreography is by Irina Tsikurishvili) as they try to open the tin serves up a little treat within the treat that is the show. With middle-class men of their era cooking for themselves, digestive distress must occur, as happens after they consume a dubious Irish stew of their own making. Montmorency, always in the thick of things, suffers a bit of doggy flatulence, and later confronts a battle-scarred tomcat on shore, to his regret.
The narrative turns briefly thoughtful—and a touch Mark Twain-ish—when Jerome contemplates the night sky from the river. The whole theater (with projections by Shane O’Loughlin and lighting by Brittany Diliberto) becomes a starry canopy against which Jerome ponders life and God. Then heavy rains, chilly temperatures, and a dose of tragic social realism when a probable suicide floats past them in the river inspire the adventurers to rethink the rest of their trip.
The journey becomes a mere memory as they warm up in a favorite London eatery. We in the audience are quite happy to have tagged along.
Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) is at Synetic Theater through June 8. Running time is about 90 minutes, with no intermission. Tickets ($20 to $55) are available through Synetic’s website.