On Stage: Three men and a dog get into a boat…

REVIEW: And hilarity ensues in Synetic’s Jerome play.

Tim Getman, Rob Jansen, Tom Story and Alex Mills. (Photo by Koko Lanham)

, , and . (Photo by Koko Lanham)

The acerbic W.C. Fields once sagely advised fellow actors to never work with children or animals because they are masterful scene-stealers. It seems that holds true even if the dog on stage is played by a grown man. In Synetic Theater’s production of “Three Men in a Boat (to Say Nothing of the Dog),” Montmorency, the dog, was played by Alex Mills and he stole every scene.

Mills, a Helen Hayes-winning actor, has appeared in a number of Synetic’s silent (without dialogue) productions and has the smooth dance-like movements so unique in its productions. It also helps that costume designer created a grey hood and a straw hat both with ears for Montmorency, which add to his cuteness. Mills’ inspired antics, choreographed by , are also delightfully funny.

“Three Men in a Boat”is an inspired rendition of the 125-year-old Jerome K. Jerome novella, cleverly written and directed by . Even though the story of a fabled boating holiday was first published in 1889, it is as fresh and funny as if it were written last week. That may explain why it has been so popular all these years, and true to its promise, it succeeded in filling the Synetic Theatre with laughter.

It should be pointed out that the smart one in this hapless group is the fox terrier Montmorency, who is an unwilling participant in a boating holiday that Jerome (Tom Story) and his friends George (Tim Getman) and Harris (Rob Jansen) decide is necessary to ease their listlessness. It is to be a jaunt on the Thames between Kingston and Oxford, and Jerome had intended it to be a travelogue at a time when such boating holidays were in vogue. One amusing aside is that the inns and pubs mentioned in the story are still there, and George and Harris are the names of the playwright’s friends.

As the play opens, the three men are lounging about, smoking pipes and talking about a need for a respite, although it is hard to understand why. None of them have any experience boating or camping, but that isn’t going to deter them. We can guess what’s coming. This story was first published in 1889, and it could have been the inspiration for any number of silly television comedies or movies. There is a surprising freshness about the comical disaster that comes, an ill-conceived adventure reminiscent of something out of “I Love Lucy.”

One clever sequence involves Jerome reading a medical dictionary. He subsequently believes he suffers from all the maladies he sees there. It gets even funnier when they are packed and ready to go, but then become concerned that they might have forgotten toothbrushes. After they get underway there is a major dining crisis because they have forgotten to bring mustard and, most importantly, a can opener. The missing can opener sets off wildly desperate antics of unsuccessfully trying to open a tin of pineapple, including Montmorency chipping a tooth from biting the can. Another wonderful moment involves Montmorency killing several chickens with him bouncing around the stage chewing at cushions standing in for the chickens.

Clearly on this excursion, anything that can go wrong goes wrong. And, of course, it rains, adding to the chaos as they row laboriously past historic spots along the Thames. Story, Jansen and Getman crash hopelessly about, realizing that they should have stayed home smoking their pipes. The three men manage to get every possible laugh out of Jerome’s novella.

After all the rain and desperate to have something to eat, the trio decides to throw any usable leftovers into a Mulligan stew. Not to be left out, the scrappy terrier shows up with his contribution — a dead rat — once again stealing the scene.

Aside from Montmorency, Stack dressed the three men in appropriate 19th-century clothing, including brightly striped boating jackets, obviously the required look for boating on the Thames. ’s clever scenic design with fainting couches doubling as the boat, as well as a shallow strip of water around the front of the stage provide a nice atmospheric touch with water reflections and sounds. Some Synetic veterans sitting in the first few rows — aware of Synetic’s playfulness — were concerned that some serious splashing might occur. Thankfully, that didn’t happen.

The three men in that boat struggling across the Synetic stage are talented, comedic performers. But they’ve undoubtedly learned to tell future directors they don’t work with animals, especially if that animal is a dog played by Alex Mills.

Three Men in a Boat (to Say Nothing of the Dog),” continues through June 8, 2014 at Synetic Theater, 1800 South Bell Street, Arlington, VA 22202. Tickets start at $35 and are available at 866-811-4111 and online here.

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