America has always been in love with colorful, charismatic, high-powered women — it’s just been reluctant to vote them into higher office. So while Golda Meir was running for prime minister of Israel, we had to settle for Hello, Dolly! running on Broadway. In the conservative Eisenhower years of the mid-1950s, our surrogate for being high-spirited was Auntie Mame, first in a 1955 novel by Patrick Dennis and three years later on Broadway. A musical version had to wait till 1966.
The zesty production of Auntie Mame at 2nd Story Theatre (through February 12) shows that there’s enough happening in the original stage play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee to keep us interested without characters occasionally bursting into song. And such a talkative, rollicking lot they are — nearly two dozen, mincing or swanning across the stage, fueled by puzzlement or determination and/or martinis.
Of course, no matter how entertaining the satellite characters are, Auntie Mame lives or dies on how compelling Mame is. Well, 2nd Story has a winner in Joanne Fayan, who strikes the right balance of flamboyance, brashness, and ladylike kindness.
Mame becomes an auntie when her 10-year-old nephew, Patrick Dennis (Evan Kinnane), lands on her doorstep in the midst of a raucous Greenwich Village party. Black sheep or not, Mame is his father’s well-to-do sister and Patrick’s only living relative. Auntie warms to the responsibility in a heartbeat, handing Patrick a pad and pencil to write down all the unfamiliar words he overhears as he walks around. Nymphomania, narcissism, Karl Marx, Cubism, lesbian. Hmmm, she purrs, perusing them, “you won’t need to know some of these words for months.”
But, no, not so easy. His eccentric aunt doesn’t get to sign him up as an apprentice to her free living and free loving lifestyle. (“Life is a banquet — and most poor suckers are starving to death” is her cardinal aphorism.) In steps the gloomy Mr. Babcock (Tom Briody), the trustee put in charge of the boy. Soon young Patrick is yanked out of a progressive (and nudist) school and sent off to be educated conservatively, his stockbroker desk all but picked out for him, to be influenced by Mame only on vacations.
That’s just as well for us, plotwise. The 1929 stock crash pauperizes Mame, so we get to see her all Lucille Ball as she messes up various jobs. Actress friend Vera Charles (Paula Faber) gets her a bit part in a play, but her “Swiss bell-ringing act” of a bracelet is so noisy that she upstages her now former friend. Mame’s plight allows a kindly Southern gentleman, Beauregard Burnside (Jim Sullivan), to sweep her away from all of this. Swept with them to Georgia, we get a swiftly paced set-piece in which a hellishly domineering Mother Burnside (Joan Batting) and Mame’s sweetly slit-eyed rival Sally Cato (Laura Sorensen) prove no match for our feisty Yankee heroine.