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When Aunt Daphne Went Nude

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

It's a shame that Noel Coward died in 1973. If he had lived just a bit longer, he might have hit on the idea of writing a comedy of manners about the impact of a major German leader during the years leading up to World War II. Think of it: Private Lives with two characters based on Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun! The mind boggles. For some unfathomable reason, however, Coward never attempted it. That left the door wide open for newer playwrights to mine the concept for its obvious comic gold. Miriam Jensen Hendrix has answered the challenge with her play, When Aunt Daphne Went Nude, which just opened at the Mint Space. She does everything she can to make the encroaching Nazism of early 1930s London not only relevant to modern audiences but also laughworthy.

Hendrix, unfortunately, never picks up on what Coward knew instinctively: You can't have an effective comedy of manners without wit. That doesn't stop Hendrix from trying, and When Aunt Daphne Went Nude is full of attempts to wring jokes from situations surrounding such humor-rich topics as crippling poverty and pervasive anti-Semitism. Only the most daring and resourceful of writers could possibly make this work; Hendrix demonstrates her facility for working in the comedy of manners form much better than she does making the resulting play funny.

She's got the right idea, starting with a formerly well-to-do English family, the Walmesleys (inspired by the Mitfords), experiencing the weight of the Great Depression and facing creditors they're unable to pay. Delia (Patricia Hodges) wants to solve the family's monetary problems by marrying off her son Reginald (Scott Ferrara) to a wealthy woman, but he's already in love with a visiting American girl named Emily (Tarah Flanagan), whom he's bringing to meet his family. Emily, however, cannot wed until her 25th birthday unless she receives express permission from her Aunt Millicent (Lucille Patton).

Delia's sister, Daphne (Jane Titus), the family eccentric, is also visiting, spouting her own peculiar brand of political philosophy that involves a spa in the Bavarian Alps, gymnastics centered around certain runic shapes, nudity, and hatred of everyone not an Aryan. Where this is all headed is evident from the first 20 minutes on, and the final curtain - a combination of couplings, deflatings, and destructions - doesn't disappoint. And, as they have for several hundred years' worth of plays about subjects almost identical to these, comic possibilities abound.

The entanglements and resolutions are doled out at predictable intervals as the play lumbers along, and true surprises - whether about Emily's family, Delia and Daphne's true motives, or the presence of Reginald's Texan cousin Buck (Josh Shirley) - are few and far between. So are the laughs, but while few of Hendrix's intended laugh lines land (generally because any author wanting to make an aspiring Nazi funny is going to have trouble succeeding in the best of circumstances), the fault can at least partially be attributed to director Keith Oncale, who paces the majority of the show with the excitement and energy of the "Ascot Gavotte" in My Fair Lady.

At least you can marvel at the sumptuous wood paneling and exquisite furnishings of the Jacobean manor house that set designer Gregory Tippit has rendered (he's also responsible for the lovely costumes), and bask in the talents of the first-rate acting company. The ensemble, which also includes Roy Bacon as the inebriated patriarch and J.C. Hoyt as the family's butler, is uniformly strong and committed: Particular standouts include Ferrara, Patton as the prudish and stuffy Millicent, and Shirley as the born-again American cousin, but everyone does quite well.

But in attempting to subvert an established theatrical form for her own purposes, Hendrix never transcends expectations, and fails to meet many of the most basic ones. Namely, that people should laugh: Only in one scene, when the unabashedly uninhibited Daphne corners the conservative Buck, does Hendrix truly explore her farcical opportunities. Yet when she expands on this idea late in the second act into the titular nude scene, she has Daphne spout out an anti-Jewish screed while three men try to wrap her in a carpet.

Would Noel Coward have thought up that resolution? We'll never know for sure. But rather than invoking Blithe Spirit, When Aunt Daphne Went Nude more readily calls to mind another famous story, "The Emperor's New Clothes." Plenty of pretty words about, and there's just the right amount of posing, prancing, and posturing, but ultimately there's nothing there.

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When Aunt Daphne Went Nude
Running Time: 1 hour, 50 minutes with one 15-minute intermission
Mint Theatre, 311 West 43rd Street
Schedule and Tickets: 212.352.3101