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Cape May, N.J.: Theater at the Seaside

Cape May, the southernmost destination on the Jersey Shore, is best known for the Victorian houses lining its streets. It also offers visitors a wellspring of culture, including concerts, cabarets, family entertainment and two Equity theaters. The older of them, East Lynne Theater Company (founded in 1980), focuses exclusively on early American theater—plays and playwrights from the 19th century or first few decades of the 20th century. Thus, it gives voice and body on stage to the era represented so photogenically by the town's architecture. The company is now presenting Four by Four, an evening of short plays by Louisa May Alcott, William Dean Howells, William Gillette and Elmer Rice.

With its unique mission, East Lynne functions as both a theater producer and a cultural preservationist, and its respect for this period in theater history is, as the saying goes, in the details. Placards on an easel announce each play's title, intermission and "the end." A prologue briefs audience members on the history of the one-act. Marion T. Brady's excellent period costumes include a smoking jacket and several different long dress and hat ensembles. The direction by Gayle Stahlhuth recreates old-timey theatrics with freeze-poses followed by a blackout to end each playlet and an acting style less natural than today's, as befits these pre-O'Neill works.

Every actor appears in at least three of the plays, so they are to be commended for their stamina as well as their commitment to each character, no matter the size of the role or the tone of the piece. Handsome Damon Bonetti gets to play both carefree bachelor (in Howells' "The Smoking Car") and befuddled husband (in the Rice piece); twittery Dawn Harvey is the busiest in the cast, with half a dozen roles of varying genders between the four plays. Mark Edward Lang is a solid presence even though, as the title character of Gillette's "The Painful Predicament of Sherlock Holmes," he says virtually nothing in what turns out to be a monologue by a flustered client. Alison J. Murphy, who plays the client (a part created for Ethel Barrymore), among other roles, proves an appealing, interesting actress, with cheekbones and mannerisms resembling a young Meryl Streep.

Four by Four harkens back to a time when playwrights would resolve any scenario, even an abandoned baby or a divorce suit, with a laugh. Though they predate the age of serious drama, the plays showcase a variety of genres, from Alcott's melodrama "Bianca" (written for the Alcott sisters to perform), with its Perils of Pauline and Romeo and Juliet-type conflicts; to the screwball comedy/farce of "The Smoking Car," involving an infant left on board a train; to Rice's play, "The Passing of Chow-Chow," which—while lacking the social conscience of his later, more famous works—takes some satiric jabs at marriage and lawyers. Overall, East Lynne offers a lighthearted evening of theater that celebrates our nation's heritage. In these days of tattered flags dangling from car antennas, that's a true and meaningful act of patriotism. Four by Four runs through Sept. 3.; 609-884-5898.

Cape May Stage, also an Equity house, has existed since 1988; like East Lynne, it has a season that runs from the springtime right to the Christmas holidays. Cape May Stage is currently deploying five actors to dramatize Jules Verne's comic Victorian-era travelogue Around the World in 80 Days. This adaptation by Mark Brown has been making the rounds of regional theaters since premiering at the Utah Shakespeare Festival in 2001, probably attracting so many practitioners because of its potential for inventive staging and multifarious performances—a potential that is thoroughly, delectably realized by the Cape May production. I hate to crib a word from the company's publicity, but "rollicking" is the best way to describe how director Michael Carleton—presumably also the M. Carleton credited with lighting and sound design—and his cast barrel through approximately 25,000 miles, 30-odd characters and nearly a dozen different modes of transportation in only two hours (including intermission).

Just as Phileas Fogg's quest depends on precise timing, so does the success of a production of this Around the World in 80 Days, and the Cape May troupe meets the challenge with its unflagging vigor. To simulate the various conveyances by which Fogg circumnavigates the globe, the same table and four chairs are reconfigured into a train compartment, an elephant caravan, a typhoon-battered boat and a steam train traversing America's Wild West, among other things. Sound effects and the actors' motions complete these tableaux, which are cleverly assembled and surehandedly enacted.

Leisa Mather continually changes accents, headgear and facial hair to greet Phileas Fogg in each country—she plays about half the play's characters—while Andrew Prosky (son of actor/Cape May resident Robert) also portrays multiple international roles in addition to the misinformed Scotland Yard detective who pursues Fogg throughout his journey. Their versatility and esprit keep the show moving at high speed and in good cheer, but Jim FitzGerald in his main role, Fogg's manservant Passepartout, is no less adroit and indelible. His acrobatics during an opium scene are a show unto themselves. In the less flashy role of Fogg, Mark Rector attains an appropriate blend of oblivion, British stiff upper lip and fastidiousness. Denise Johnson plays the fugitive Indian princess (and Fogg love interest) Aouda too tentatively, but displays greater range and comic abilities in her small other roles.

Many people like their summer theater cheery, fun and quick-paced, which is just what you get from Cape May's Around the World in 80 Days. It runs through Aug. 20; Jason Robert Brown's musical The Last Five Years opens Aug. 24.; 609-884-1341.

Where to stay: Victorian B&Bs are the name of the game in Cape May accommodations. There are so many lovely properties, you might resort to picking one based merely on color. And you wouldn't be disappointed if that landed you at the green, yellow and red-trimmed Albert Stevens Inn. Situated on a small quiet street separated from a busier road by small quiet Wilbraham Park, the Albert Stevens offers a convenient location without noise or pedestrian/vehicle traffic at its doorstep. It's walking distance to the beach, four blocks away, and to restaurants and stores (Cape May in general is fairly compact). The inn is attentively run and superbly maintained by owners Jim and Lenanne Labrusciano, who serve an exquisite breakfast—including an entree, a fruit dish and a special baked good—and afternoon tea and snacks, and generously include such amenities as round-the-clock self-serve coffee bar, tea, wine and sherry; beach chairs and towels; and bathrobes in room. There are two classically furnished dining rooms and parlors, a porch with rocking chairs, and a contemporary-furnished screened veranda. The 10 guest rooms and suites are beautifully attired in Victorian style but have modern bathrooms and amenities like air conditioning, mini-fridge, and TV with VCR.; 800-890-2287.

Seeing the costumed mannequin on the front porch, Cape May visitors may not realize that Elaine's has opened an inn in the Victorian mansion where it has long operated two theme restaurants—and the year-old accommodations do seem inexplicably neglected in the property's promotions (see Web address at end of this paragraph for an example). Which is a shame, because the hotel part of the building has all the ambience and elegance of a 19th-cenutry British country house, but everything's in sparkling new condition! The 10 guest rooms feature sumptuous linens, designer toiletries, period decorative touches like a divan and fringed lampshades, and—to disguise the 21st-century artifacts—satiny "hoses" over electric cords. On the second floor, where the guest rooms are located, there are a wraparound terrace with rocking chairs and a drawing room that looks straight out of an Oscar Wilde play. Elaine's calls its breakfast "continental," but it typically includes a hot dish in addition to pastries, bagels with assorted spreads, fruit, cereal and yogurt. The inn is located a block from Cape May Stage; one block from the Washington Street Mall, a car-free strip of shops and restaurants; and about three blocks from the beach.; 609-884-4358.

Photos, from top: Bonetti, Harvey, Murphy and Lang in "The Smoking Room," part of East Lynne's Four by Four; Prosky, Rector, FitzGerald and Mather discuss going Around the World in 80 Days. Homepage photo of the Albert Stevens Inn. 

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