Jane Titus, Scott Ferrara, and Patricia Hodgesin When Aunt Daphne Went Nude(Photo © Shawn Washburn)
Jane Titus, Scott Ferrara, and Patricia Hodges
in When Aunt Daphne Went Nude
(Photo © Shawn Washburn)
Did you ever wonder why English comedies of manners -- including some of the most famous plays of Noël Coward -- continued to thrive across Europe during the rise of fascism? Miriam Jensen Hendrix has, and the question apparently weighed strongly on her mind when she was writing her dark comedy When Aunt Daphne Went Nude. It's an interesting idea to explore the most horrifying events of the 20th century through the lens of such a trivial theatrical form, but this play proves just how difficult it is to make that idea work.

Hendrix introduces us to the Walmesley family, keeping up appearances in an English manor (set and costumes designed with luscious realism by Gregory Tippit) during the Great Depression. The last hope of Lady Delia (Patricia Hodges) in maintaining the family wealth is for her dashing son Reginald (Scott Ferrara) to marry into affluent society, but darling Reggie has eyes for Emily Rowbottom (Tarah Flanagan), a girl whom Delia believes to be a "penniless little twit from America." When Emily and her Aunt Millicent (Lucille Patton) visit to finalize the marriage plans, Delia decides to scare them off with Reginald's eccentric relatives: his whiskey-toting dad, Sir Cedric (Roy Bacon); his cowboy oil baron cousin "Buck" (Josh Shirley); and the titular (pun intended), zaftig Aunt Daphne (Jane Titus).

Although she's a brassy American, Aunt Millicent's a bit of a Victorian prig in her own right -- and a temperance-preaching Christian, to boot. She immediately dislikes Cedric's British drinking habits and the class division that butler Jipsome (J. C. Hoyt) represents. Delia's plan hits the exacta when Jipsome enters with a tray of champagne but it backfires when Auntie M. identifies with Buck's good, country values. Still, Daphne is Delia's trump card. The peculiar woman reveals her newfound interest in a group of racist occultists who meet in the Bavarian Alps to discuss a new world order -- in the nude.

The play is strongest when emphasizing that loudmouthed, bigoted, old hag Daphne is, above all, inappropriate. Millicent can put up with Daphne's dalliances with ancient Aryan sects; she can even stomach the woman's anti-Semitic screeds, to which her tight-lipped reply is, "I believe that the Jews are the chosen people." But all hell breaks loose when Daphne wants to reveal anything more of her body than her ample cleavage, at which point Buck and the butler have to step in and literally throw a rug on the situation. Unfortunately, the laugh lines in When Aunt Daphne Went Nude rarely elicit more than a few chuckles, and the play's more fascinating ideas get bogged down in endless subplots. The playwright spends far too much time imparting the details of Daphne's occultism and Buck's matching scheme to usher in the End of Days. Like Millicent, the young Texan professes to like Jews, mostly as a prerequisite for the Second Coming; but this timely observation about certain evangelicals is mired in overwritten dialogue.

Keith Oncale directs the production sharply, and the ensemble is extremely capable. Hodges plays the prig with a stiff posture to go with her starched dress, and Ferrara charmingly channels Hugh Grant as her son. Flanagan is a fine, wide-eyed American belle as Emily, and Patton is perfect as her aunt. Although all of the characters are archetypes to one extent or another, Hoyt, Bacon, and Shirley make strong impressions in their roles. Finally, Titus is a powerhouse as the irrepressible Aunt Daphne. While this amibitous play ultimately loses hold of its concept, it's interesting in that it takes Coward and company to task for their sins of omission. From one point of view, it makes the comedy of manners playwrights look like the clueless society prudes whom they ridiculed, sipping brandy while the elephant Hitler soiled the drawing room rug.