In today's world, a circumnavigation of the globe based on Phileas Fogg's itinerary -- as described in Jules Verne's 1873 novel, "Around the World in 80 Days" -- would cost more than a year's tuition at Yale, yet wouldn't have half the excitement. But Mark Brown's stage play, though it lacks that fabulous hot air balloon in the 1956 movie, and an earth-orbiting rocket that can now complete the same trip in 80 minutes, still manages to capture our imagination, offering an amusement park ride that rivals "The Amazing Race" for adventure and laughs.
Brown's characters take us back to a time when travel was exceedingly more complicated than today (eight-hour delays on a tarmac notwithstanding), and provides us insight into a Victorian world where the exigencies of gentlemanly behavior trump expediency, and even survival.
The inspiration for Verne's fictional Fogg was probably George Francis Train, an eccentric Boston merchant, insurance man, and railroad builder, who took a quick trip around the world in 1870, departing from New York. He traveled west to San Francisco, Japan, Hong Kong, Saigon, Singapore, Suez and Marseilles, where he fell into an adventure that landed him in a Lyons jail. Upon his release, he headed to Liverpool, and then New York, completing the entire trip in 80 days.
We don't know much more about Train, but Fogg is meticulously drawn, portrayed as an exacting and punctilious man, given to firing servants for the slightest infraction, such as preparing his shaving water one degree too warm or too cool. He is precise about time and bucks no interference with his daily routines. But somewhere inside this human machine languishes an adventurer, and that part of him is unexpectedly revealed one morning at the Reform Club where he idles away his time.
In response to a newspaper article about said trip, Fogg bets his friends that he can do the same. Confident that this feat is indeed possible, and despite his friends' skepticism, the wealthy Englishman puts up his entire fortune, risking bankruptcy and a life of penury if he fails. All in attendance at his table take the offer, set their watches, and Fogg's off, the rest of the play focusing on the hardships and pitfalls of so precarious a journey.
Accompanied by his manservant, Passepartout, the two set out to prove they can do the impossible, all the while being dogged by Detective Fix, a Sherlock Holmes look-alike who is fixated on Fogg's fortune. It seems that a gentleman was involved in a recent robbery of 55,000 pounds and Fogg fits the description of the felon.
With fast-paced direction and comic timing that rivals the trip itself, director Michael Evan Haney creates a storm-tossed ship in the midst of a typhoon, a ride on a galloping elephant, and a sacrificial native ritual in which Fogg rescues a young maiden, using little more than a few simple props. All this in time to hop the next train, catch the next steamer, have the passports stamped, and hopefully make it across the International Date Line before itï¿½s too late.
Using his wiles and previous circus experience, Passepartout, is the unsung hero of this adventure, and a great foil for Mr. Fogg's inflexible nature. Played respectively by Evan Zes and Daniel Stewart, this pair of accomplished actors manage to make Irish Rep's tiny stage seem like the world.
Lauren Elise McCord as the rescued damsel in distress brings out the tenderness in Fogg, a becoming side he didn't know he had, and John Keating and Jay Russell are agile and energetic in multiple roles, moving easily from one to the next as they make lightning-fast costume changes.
It's worth a trip to New York.
Barbara Mehlman & Geri Manus