My discovery of Around the World in 80 Days was almost completely happenstance. I spent 30 minutes hoping to win the lottery for Kinky Boots tickets, when some couple from Arizona scored the last pair of tickets. Distraught—but still craving theatre—I walked halfway down the block and happened upon the small performance space that is The New Theatre, now featuring a comedic adaptation of Around the World in 80 Days. Being a huge Jules Verne fan (and already curious about the play based on its subway posters) I wandered into the theatre and snagged some last minute tickets. Safe to say, I was not disappointed.
Rigid and stoic Phileas Fogg (Josh Segarra, a recent replacement for Bryce Ryness) enters into a wager with members of his reform club that he can’t travel around the world in 80 days—a feat that is now supposedly possible in 1872 with the completion of a new railroad in India. Traveling with his newly hired (and very goofy) servant Passepartout (John Gregorio), Fogg undertakes this daunting trek with surprising confidence. Along the way he finds himself pursued by the bumbling Detective Fix (Stephen Guarino, familiar to fans of Happy Endings), who suspects him of a scandalous bank robbery; saving the beautiful and transfixing Auoda (Shirine Babb) from being a human sacrifice; and dealing with the various roadblocks that inevitably arise from a world trek.
Drawing from Jules Verne’s classic novel, playwright Mark Brown infuses the story with contemporary humor, giving the play an infectious and approachable feel. This Off-Broadway production—directed and designed by Rachel Klein—tells the story at a zany pace, with the 5 actors playing 39 characters and delivering Gilmore Girls-paced dialogue. The speed and wit of the production works well in the intimate space, which they utilize to its full potential. And the manic energy of the play keeps the audience fully engaged.
Although the actors occasionally garble their lines while working through their affected accents (so many different accents!), they handle their quick character changes with amusing ease (and they managed a set piece accident with blasé efficiency). Segarra is steely as Fogg (and little uneasy with his accent) but a good center for the show, being the only actor who plays the same character throughout. Gregorio and Guarino are both amusing in their capacities as bumbling sidekicks to the story. Babb shines as the only woman in the gang, hamming up her comedic moments perfectly. But most notable is Jimmy Ray Bennett who plays most of the one-off characters, effortlessly switching humorous accents and completely embodying each character like a skilled sketch comedy actor (he is the one who truly makes the show so great).
This show, which just opened at the end of May, seems to be flying under the radar (I hadn’t heard a single thing about it beyond that subway ad). But it’s a surprising treat, an adaptation that remains true to Verne’s vision while still telling something fresh. It is also so infectious that I want to dive right back into that novel or maybe just see the show again. So, if you’re in NYC, take a break from those big Broadway productions and go see this delightful and charming play instead.