Whether Augie March turns out to be the hero of his own play, or whether that station is held by the ensemble of strong-willed eccentrics around him, David Auburn's new stage adaptation of Saul Bellow's classic The Adventures of Augie March hasn't quite decided. But in Charles Newell's production for Court Theatre, he's on a hugely entertaining and sometimes moving journey. What it lacks in narrative arc, it more than makes up for in heart, wit, and poetry.
Auburn had a nearly impossible task at hand in taking on Bellow's sprawling bildungsroman, the David Copperfield of gritty American 20th century working-class urban life. The novel comes in at over 500 pages and takes its hero from Chicago ("that somber city") to Mexico and an interlude on a lifeboat with a madman after his merchant vessel is sunk.
That's where Auburn's play begins, rather than with the novel's famous opening, "I am an American, Chicago-born," and there's an Ancient Mariner undertone to the encounter between Patrick Mulvey's Augie and John Judd's Basteshaw. But we're soon tossed back on the shores of Lake Michigan, where Augie's family struggles to find a toehold. Through three acts, three hours, and two intermissions, the play circles back to that boat and to a coda in Italy, where Augie, like Mr. Copperfield, sits with a notebook and tries to make sense of what's come before.
Critic Vivian Gornick once wrote that Bellow and his peers Norman Mailer and Philip Roth had "an infantile preoccupation with themselves . . . [they are] men who hate and fear the moment in which they are living, men who are in flight from their time." But Bellow's Augie, while undeniably in flight from his unhappy family, finds himself surrendering to chance and adventure because of the vibrant women in his life. They are the driving animating forces for Augie, and they shine in this production.
There's Marilyn Dodds Frank's blunt Grandma Lausch, who tells young Augie, "You're too easy to tickle" (meaning that he chooses momentary pleasures over hard work). There's Aurora Real de Asua's cynical-but-wounded radical Mimi, who goes to Augie for help in obtaining an illegal abortion (oh hello, unexpectedly relevant content!). And there's Chaon Cross's Thea, the heiress who takes Augie to Mexico in order to train an eagle to catch iguanas—as if Susan Vance from Bringing Up Baby took peyote and dragged Cary Grant south of the border. Together, they're the real agents of change. The men (including Luigi Sottile as Simon, Augie's social-climbing brother) roar and kick, but it's the women who lead.
Newell's 13 actors (all of whom except Mulvey play multiple roles) negotiate the shifts in vernacular and locale with precision and panache. John Culbert's gloomy black-beamed set and chiaroscuro lighting provide a somber counterpoint to the story's fantastical elements, while Manual Cinema's shadow puppetry enhances them.
Gornick is half-right: Augie is a man-child in many ways. But in Auburn's imagining and Mulvey's performance, he embraces the moment in which he is living with an open heart. Newell's staging also embraces each moment with a bold and refreshingly uncynical sense of theatrical flair. v