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Around the World in 80 Days

This visually inventive five-actor adaptation of Jules Verne's novel is a trip worth taking.

Bryce Ryness in Around the World in 80 Days
(© Michael Blase)
It would be impossible to match onstage the visual spectacle of the 1956 Oscar-winning film version of Around the World in 80 Days. However, Rachel Klein's thoroughly inventive production of Mark Brown's five-actor play based on Jules Verne's globetrotting adventure, now at the New Theater at 45th Street, does quite a lot to measure up to its cinematic predecessor.

As soon as one enters the newly refurbished space, audiences will notice lavish painted murals on the venue's walls. Even better, Klein and designer Robert Andrew Kovach have created a colorful two-tiered stage — complete with a clock that serves as a screen for Kate Freer's clever LED projections — which allows the audience to feel they have joined dashing Londoner Phileas Fogg (Bryce Ryness) as he attempts to span the world in those 80 days.

Fogg's stated motive in undertaking this tricky journey is to win an impulsively made bet at his gentlemen's club. But is it possible that he's a robber trying to flee England with fifty-five thousand pounds? That's exactly what the dogged Detective Fix (Stephen Guarino) thinks as he goes in relentless pursuit of Fogg, who is traveling with his newly acquired, less-than-efficient manservant Passepartout (John Gregorio). Eventually, the duo is joined by Auoda (Shirine Babb), a beautiful Indian woman who is about to be killed as a ritual sacrifice until Fogg helps save her from that ghastly fate.

While the show's plot is faithful to Verne's famed novel, Brown's brisk script is full of campy moments that lend the play a kitschy quality. Most of these belong to the hilarious, rubber-limbed Jimmy Ray Bennett, who portrays an almost-dizzying array of secondary characters, including a grizzled sea captain, a stamp-happy consulate officer, and a hard-shooting cowboy. Each role is well-differentiated (although a few have an overly fey quality) and his appearances consistently brighten the proceedings.

Guarino, Gregorio, and Babb also play some smaller parts, but these actors have their finest moments in their primary roles. Guarino provides a sense of determination to Detective Fix that almost makes us root for him. Gregorio is particularly amusing when defending the accuracy of his beloved pocket watch. And Babb presents a quiet dignity as Aouda, whose gratefulness slowly turns to passion as her journey to London stretches on.

Only Ryness has one task, and he does it extremely well, never losing his grip on Fogg's stiff-upper-lip seriousness no matter how silly the goings-on around him become. It's an accomplished turn that makes a world of difference in this effective, enjoyable production.