PORTLAND – The title of this review is as ludicrous as some of the situations in which Graham Greene put his characters in the 1958 “entertainment,” “Our Man in Havana,” one of his frivolous works surrounded by serious novels that secured his legacy as a legend of 20th century letters.
But with President Obama having just announced a move to normalize relations with Cuba on the heels of a cloak-and-dagger Cold War era-style spy swap with Havana, Portland Stage’s version, adapted in 2007 by Clive Davis and directed by Paul Mullins, seems to remind us that sometimes, truth indeed is stranger than fiction.
The play, as with the 1959 movie starring Alec Guinness, and Greene’s book, is set in late-1950s Cuba under the repressive Batista regime, just prior to Castro’s revolution- and, um, repressive regime. More great timing.
Wormold (Bruce Turk) is a Brit businessman selling vacuum cleaners in Havana.
One day, he is taken to the ‘loo by MI6 recruiter Hawthorne (Vin Knight) and pressed into national service. He becomes an intelligence operative, who must also recruit others informants in a scheme that puts Amway to shame.
Meanwhile, police strongman Captain Segura (Jason O’Connell) has designs on Wormold’s precocious teenage daughter Milly (Katie MacNichol), all while keeping an eye on all spying activities in Havana.
When Wormold decides he must justify his existence to London by way of an imaginary network of informants, all while making a tidy profit along the way, the real fun begins.
Every actor except Turk played multiple roles past the four mentioned above, and all four narrated. This was not only a brilliant device by Davis, but it was the only way to make sense of Greene’s humor translated to the stage. It also added to the mayhem with multiple scenes, situations, and costumes, often from one minute to the next.
Turk played a masterfully evolving Wormold, who grew in savvy and ability with every scene, even while retaining Greene’s mandatory goofiness. He had numerous chances to pull off excellent moments of physical comedy, then return to his requisite milquetoast self, all while swimming in a sea of bewilderment. Turk did not disappoint on any level
The same applies for Knight, who portrayed, among myriad characters, a clever Dr. Fasselbacher, Wormold’s German expat World War I veteran friend, and about as stuffy a Hawthorne as one could produce without adding a pound of sand to his pockets.
The alluring MacNichol seemed to float onstage and into our consciousness, whether as teenager or hardcore stripper. These flurry of parts allowed her to show off considerable Thespian chops.
Some might argue that because Milly was 16 going on 17 (or maybe 30 for that matter), that artisitic director Anita Stewart should have found someone younger to play the part. But this is what acting is all about, and MacNichol’s broad range of caricatures were exquisite.
That said, the acting night on some level had to belong to O’Connell, who managed to masterfully imitate and then giddily lampoon perhaps every stereotype imaginable, to include the trademark waving Queen Elizabeth II. The word “peerless” comes to mind.
Outside of acting, the production also excelled.
Lights by Bryon Winn and sound by Shannon Zura were on their marks and enhanced the constant shifts in action while staying creatively fun. Anita Stewart’s set was both dreamy as well as utilitarian, beaming us from Havana to London with a seamlessness that would have left Scotty proud in the USS Enterprise’s transport room.
The costumes of Hugh Hanson, whether appearing for entire scenes and repeats or just for a few moments, deserved an ovation of their own. Want some time travel? Hone in on the clean, stark lines and color scheme balance of the airline stewardess garb worn by MacNichol.
Finally, a nod must go to stage manager Shane Van Vliet, just for keeping up with the logistics of the show, and director Mullins – whose fine work I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing several times at Dorset Theatre Festival – for leading the zany moving parts of this production in one harmonious, creative piece.
Having read Greene’s entertainment in college – while the Cold War was raging – I made it a point to re-read it 35 years later, when I learned I’d be reviewing this play. What’s as true today, perhaps even more so, is that Greene was a master of letters.
While humor and satire may be the lightest and easiest of all reads, it is one of the hardest to produce. When the writer’s goal is to make you laugh on top of thinking, failure to do so is miserable for all involved.
Greene doesn’t fail, nor does Davis’ expert adaptation at the hands of a most capable troupe at Portland Stage, which pulled off the surreal skewering as … believable. For that reason alone, everyone within a few hours of Portland should invest in the drive to see this play.
And to those who may contend the play was too silly given some of its grim subjects linked to dictatorships, to that I reply with all due respect: Nonsense! (pun intended). Not every artistic endeavor has to lead us back to some grim ideological reality to validate our gravitas. Loosen your belt, relax, and trying laughing a bit more.
Graham’s entertainment may be just as ridiculously poignant as his 1982 work, “Monsignor Quixote.” But its intent, along the requisite political statement, is to make us jolly.
To that end, this production of “Our Man in Havana” stays true to the original, and shows yet again how life imitates art in a theatre of the absurd.
“Our Man in Havana” runs through Feb. 15 at Portland Stage, 25A Forest Ave, Portland. Tickets and info call: 207-774-0465 or visit: http://www.portlandstage.org/
Stages Names is the theatre review segment of From The Stacks. Telly Halkias is a national-award winning newspaper columnist, and a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA).
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