You know those recurrent New Yorker cartoons in which some clueless sap tracks down a holy hermit and demands to know the secret of life? That is the premise of Richard Abrons’s comedy
Three Travelers, directed by Jay Broad under the auspices of the New Federal Theatre. Unfortunately, what might have made a momentarily amusing joke is stretched into 90 minutes of sitcom-level shenanigans, despite some worthwhile acting.
The convention of an irreverent, trickster guru seems as old as the hills, and this one — draped in saffron muslin and played with admirable energy and warmth by Kenneth Maharaj — is clearly cut from that cloth. Yes, we first see him sitting in semi-lotus on a raised pavilion — Don Llewellen’s high-schoolish set consists of a derelict Indian temple plunked in front of a crudely painted mountainscape backdrop — seemingly at peace mid-meditation. But what’s that industrial-strength hookah doing there? (Actually, it never comes into play.) And could that be the insistent chirp of his cellphone?
The laughs don’t get any rowdier from here, even after a trio of Western seekers pop in to seek his counsel. The aggressive ringleader, Travis, is an absurdly boorish caricature of a hotshot financier, played by Steven Schnetzer with a Bush-like swagger. Travis’ put-upon wife, Mavis (Judith Lightfoot Clarke, who looks appropriately stricken and manages to achieve a few genuine moments), is the repressed type who has come, as Travis helpfully reminds her, to do something about “the band” she always senses compressing her chest (and perhaps impeding other parts).
Their British-born companion, Lydia, is the wild card, presumably glamorous to the point of irresistible. However, in Kathleen McNenny’s depiction, she comes across as schoolmarmishly subdued. Obvious sexual frissons or no, the immediate assumption of certain secretive yearnings would not be amiss; in fact, the telegraphed signs are all but unavoidable.
First, though, the guru must perform his rascally parlor tricks: a quick game of “52-Card Pickup,” a compulsory tango, and — after he produces a bottle of vodka to help the threesome “loosen up” — his own variation on the Proust questionnaire. “What do you like about yourself?” he demands of each in turn. And “What are you most afraid of?” The ensuing revelations ought to surprise, but rarely do. By the time the seekers’ cab comes to retrieve them — they were only supposed to stay an hour — audiences may find themselves mentally seconding its impatiently honking horn.