TRAVELS WITH MY AUNT, Court Theatre. Graham Greene’s richly layered 1969 novel works in mysterious ways. On one level it’s a cheery “life begins at 50” story in which a stuffy middle-aged man is awakened to life’s joyful possibilities by an irrepressible elderly aunt. On another level it’s a meditation on the darkness in the human heart (Greene’s happiest characters are always scoundrels, criminals, and fools). And on a third level the novel explores the sort of underground societies–the seedy worlds of whores, criminals, and intelligence officers–underlying the so-called respectable world.

Sadly, almost none of the richness, suspense, and sheer liberating fun of Greene’s book comes across in Court Theatre’s dour, undramatic, visually uninteresting stage adaptation. Part of the problem is Giles Havergal’s arty, too clever adaptation, which creates four clones of the novel’s repressed protagonist, Henry Pulling, and has him (them?) impersonate all the other characters. This decision mutes Greene’s most interesting character, Aunt Augusta, by making her into a mere drag cartoon, an effect accented by Larry Yando’s Lady Bracknell-esque way of playing her.

Director Charles Newell also deserves some of the blame, at least for okaying John Culbert’s tiresome abstract set and Nan Cibula-Jenkins’s authentic but dreary costumes. Mostly, however, he deserves it for having assembled four great actors–Yando, Harry Althaus, William Brown, and Todd Petersen–then allowing them to perform in an annoying, self-indulgent “look at me, I’m acting” style that flattens Greene’s beautiful prose and drains the show of all emotional depth.

–Jack Helbig