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Pittsburgh by Ann Miner


Around the World in 80 Days

Around the World in 80 Days
Tom Beckett, Meera Rohit Kumbhani, Jeffrey Kuhn, Richard B. Watson and Ron Bohmer
Jules Verne's classic "Around the World in 80 Days" was published in 1873, and his story of Phileas Fogg's trip around the world, made speedy in order to win a bet, has fascinated and delighted through the original novel, several films, and a number of stage adaptations. Actor-playwright Mark Brown's version has had a 2008 Off-Broadway appearance and numerous regional productions. The frequently used tagline "24,000 miles, 39 characters, 5 actors, 2 magical hours" aptly describes what is in store. Around the World's two main characters are English gentleman Phileas Fogg, played by Ron Bohmer, and his French servant Passepartout, played by Jeffrey Kuhn. The remaining 37 characters of various stage time are played by Tom Beckett, Meera Rohit Kumbhani and Richard B. Watson. The trip is played out on the intimate O'Reilly thrust stage through a versatile and colorful set designed by Michael Schweikardt. Its centerpiece is a timeline painted on the floor, based on the 1890 board game called Around the World With Nellie Bly (a Pittsburgh native who in 1898 challenged the Verne story and circumnavigated the globe in 72 days).

From London, Fogg and Passepartout visit spots in France Italy, Egypt, India, Singapore, the U.S. before returning to their departure city, traveling by train, steamship and elephant (not, you may wonder, by balloon, which was depicted in film versions but not the original novel). There are numerous delays and challenges to the success of the trip, including one that for a while seems to have succeeded, involving Detective Fix (brilliantly played by Richard Watson) who dogs the pair for the entire voyage. Fogg also encounters love, with Princess Aouda (Kumbhani), a young Indian widow whom Passepartout rescues from a funeral pyre. Fogg is stoic, highly disciplined (the playwright calls it OCD) and of ramrod straight posture; his feelings and motivations are revealed only in brief glimpses until the very end of the story.

Obviously, the success of this kind of fast-paced, farce-like comedy depends on the director and the cast. Marcia Milgrom Dodge makes her directorial debut at the Public with this production, and she will likely be welcomed back. The pace and the tone are carefully balanced to delight the audience yet not go over the top. Her cast follows suit. Tom Beckett has a history taking on multiple-character assignments (seen here in 2010's Time of My Life) and he is at the top of his game in this show. Beckett presents hilarious and diverse characters of a variety of types. Richard Watson shines as Detective Fix, successfully delivering the character's signature pose many times without overdoing it. Ms. Kumbhani transforms the most in the versatile cast, through five characters, giving each his or her own personality and guise.

Jeffrey Kuhn is such an expressive and affecting actor. His Passepartout is a fully developed character we can really hold dear and root for. Ron Bohmer does what he can and should with Fogg; he's not supposed to emerge from his aloof exterior until late in the play, when he does so with abandon, giving the audience—finally—the chance to connect with him and share his joy. He does reveal the required glimpses into what Fogg is thinking and feeling with nuance and skill. Bohmer can be such a spirited performer—I missed the opportunity to see that in this role (but I hope he comes back for next season's 1776 and we can hear him sing, too).

At two hours, including intermission, the play could drag, but Dodge and company don't allow that. This is a fun and funny trip that can be enjoyed by all ages.

Mark Brown's Around the World in 80 Days continues at the O'Reilly Theater through May 13. For performance and ticket information, call 412-316-1600 or visit www.ppt.org.


Photo: Pittsburgh Public Theater


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-- Ann Miner



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