In the summer, the Irish Repertory Theater usually offers a droll little treat. This year, it’s Mark Brown’s adaptation of Jules Verne’s novel “Around the World in 80 Days,” co-produced with Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. Some of the jokes are painfully lame, but this featherweight romp should still find its niche.
Reactions will largely rely on taste: You either think broad slapstick and gentle ethnic humor are funny, or you don’t. As Phileas Fogg (Daniel Stewart) tries to win a bet by circling the globe in 80 days, he encounters all sorts of bumbling foreigners with thick accents. There’s a Chinese man with a Fu Manchu beard (Jay Russell), a rootin’-tootin’ American cowboy (John Keating) and an Indian princess (Lauren Elise McCourt) whom Fogg saves from being burned on a funeral pyre.
There’s also an endless stream of corny jokes. In one running gag, Passepartout (Evan Zes), Fogg’s uber-French servant, draws out the last syllable of the word “timepiece” until it sounds like a bodily function. And twice, director Michael Evan Haney has characters stand on the prow of a boat, arms outstretched, like Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in “Titanic.”
There’s also a plot in there, about a British detective (Keating) chasing Fogg because he thinks he’s a criminal, but that’s just an excuse for more hijinks.
Cleverest moments come from two silent thesps (Elizabeth Helitzer and Mark Parenti) who use a table of props to make sound and visual effects. During a shootout on an American train, they frantically use a slapstick to keep up with all the gunshots, and in a snowstorm, Parenti seems happy to be hurling shredded paper at his castmates.
Speaking thesps are charming, though Zes succumbs to googly eyed mugging. (His bad French accent is also more distracting than amusing.) Stewart fares best because he keeps Fogg reserved, letting us discover what’s funny instead of shoving it in our faces.
Brown’s script works in fits and starts. Some scenes have the breathless pace of a race around the world, but too many get stuck in leaden exposition. Characters usually have no organic reason to be giving us information, so they just break out of a scene and tell us important facts.
Thesps try to compensate by getting goofy with their direct address. But since these speeches are usually delivered by minor characters we barely know, their flailing arms and weird accents just seem like desperate attempts to hold our interest.
But in the final third, when the script finally settles into straight-ahead action, the show moves at the right, breezy speed. It’s a pleasant ending for a reasonably harmless ride.