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THEATER REVIEWS : How to Treat a Lady Like ‘Charley’s Aunt’

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If anyone in the world hasn’t seen “Charley’s Aunt,” Brandon Thomas’ perennial favorite, they should. It’s a prime example of what audiences were rushing to see in turn-of-the-century theater. Warhorse though it may be, it’s still funny and a delightful way to spend an evening.

Terry Gunkel, who directs a bouncy Vanguard Theatre Ensemble production at the Curtis Theatre, admits in a program note that it’s a warhorse. It doesn’t matter. So is “Hamlet.”

Gunkel lets Thomas’ comedy speak for itself. He knows that farce, which this almost is, must be done quickly, slowing only at the most tender moments. For the characters to work, they must be honest and real, and total sincerity gets the laughs.

A man in drag is nothing new, particularly in today’s entertainment world. But when slightly pompous Oxford student Lord Fancourt Babberly (Babby), played here by Tony Masters, first did it onstage, Victorian England giggled uncontrollably. Audiences still do.

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His friends and fellow students Jack Chesney (Jared Slater) and Charley Wykeham (Christopher Sullivan) have talked him into it, so that Charley’s aunt (who has postponed a visit) or a reasonable facsimile can chaperon their luncheon with their loves, Kitty (Wendy Abas) and Amy (Megan Beghtol).

The twists and turns of the plot, and the illogical coincidences so loved by Victorian audiences, are multilayered and many-splendored, as fathers and guardians appear, including the real aunt and her ward, who happens to be Babberly’s true love.

Without exception, the actors play not only the high style of the piece but also expertly toss asides to the audience with the aplomb of the period.

*

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Gunkel’s tempos are right, his insight into the style impeccable. The British accents are wisely restrained, sounding not mid-Atlantic but just a few kilometers off Southampton, and if a bit of cartoon creeps in here and there, it’s never out of place.

In a sterling company, Brenda Parks stands out as the real Donna Lucia d’Alvadorez, Charley’s millionaire aunt from Brazil (“where the nuts come from”), with her delicious air of elegance and wisdom. Slater is properly nervous and artistic as Jack; Sullivan is nervous and uncomfortable as Charley, Abas and Beghtol delightful and charming as their loves. Theresa Finamore also is very good as Donna Lucia’s ward.

Ron Baker’s butler is very funny in his stiff below-stairs way, and Richard Lewis and David Kinwald are appropriate Brit stereotypes as the fathers.

But the spark that makes the evening glisten is Masters’ Babby, mostly in frumpy garb as the phony Donna Lucia. His performance is a gem, from his physical comic flair to his brisk and delicate timing, never once resorting to camp, always masculine and still believably fooling the others in Babby’s successful but very embarrassing deception.

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* “Charley’s Aunt,” Curtis Theatre, 1 Civic Center Circle, Brea. Thursday through Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m. Ends Nov. 19. $13 to $15. (714) 990-7722. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.

Tony Masters: Lord Fancourt Babberly

Jared Slater: Jack Chesney

Christopher Sullivan: Charley Wykeham

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Wendy Abas: Kitty Verdun

Megan Beghtol: Amy Spettigue

Richard Lewis: Col. Sir Francis Chesney, Bart

David Kinwald :Stephen Spettigue

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Brenda Parks: Donna Lucia d’Alvadorez

Theresa Finamore: Ela Delahay

Ron Baker: Brassett

A Vanguard Theatre Ensemble production of Brandon Thomas’ comedy, produced by K. Robert Eaton. Directed by Terry Gunkel. Scenic design: Michael Keith Allen. Lighting design: Michelle Evans. Sound design: K. Robert Eaton. Costume design: Perry B. Ash. Stage manager: Celine Charpail.

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