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If Oscar Wilde had written a road-trip buddy play, it might have come out looking like director Derek Goldman’s new adaptation of Jerome K. Jerome’s 1895 novella Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of The Dog). The charming comedy is one of Synetic Theater’s first forays into straight plays with an outside director and Equity actors. (The company is best known for its movement-and-music adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays.) It may be no surprise, then, that Three Men in a Boat is best when the action dissolves into physical comedy, cartwheels and catfights and all.
Goldman cast Synetic newbies Tim Getman, Rob Jansen, and Tom Story as the titular men and Synetic company member Alex Mills, who most recently played Hamlet, as Montmorency the dog. While the dialogue is witty and the design is lovely, the reason to see Three Men in a Boat is to see Mills play an ornery fox terrier.
Mills emits every manner of dog noise in about four different octaves, and admirably apes terrier behavior, from lapping up chow to terrorizing tomcats. When the show opens, though, he’s lounging, as are the three hypochondriac London bachelors. Getman, Jansen, and Story all puff away on e-tobacco pipes, bemoaning their vulnerability to gout, typhoid, and diphtheria. Story serves as narrator, and maintains a dandylike demeanor throughout the show, as do his two companions. The acting is a bit exaggerated, but uniformly so, and the running gag of three well-dressed young men trying to maintain their sense of decorum while on a weeklong boating trip nearly sustains the 90-minute show.
Much humor is milked from their attempts at floating picnics. Given that there are about six meals in the show, the actors have gnashing their teeth and rubbing their bellies with satisfaction down pat, until Montmorency catches a water rat and Getman drops it into a pot of Irish stew. Eating that requires the actors to sulk behind a screen and drop their drawers.
That partition serves as apartment furnishing in the first scene but later becomes a screen for Shane O’Loughlin’s projections once the men are out on the river. Impressionist and Pre-Raphaelite images of London and the English countryside float by, while the men engage in wordplay and ponder why a town would be named Maidenhead. That’s not actually in the novella, although much of the dialogue does come straight from Jerome’s text.
Adapting the episodic novella for the stage becomes problematic when it comes to abrupt shifts in tone, however. Goldman should have just cut a scene with a dead prostitute floating in the river, a downer that adds little. But when the three men are eating, pitching a tent, or going all-out in their attempts to open an invisible tin of pineapple, they’re hilarious, and there’s plenty to say about the dog.