It is all too true. Someone has committed the egregious sin of forgetting the can opener.
That realization prompts a diverting ballet of frustration in “Three Men in a Boat (To say nothing of the Dog),” a strenuously comic literary riff from Synetic Theater. One by one, the story’s eponymous characters — who have been gripped, during their trip down the River Thames, by an urge to consume processed pineapple — attempt to bust open the can (or the “tin,” as these 19th-century Britons would put it). Someone breaks a pocket knife on it. Someone whacks it with a pot. Montmorency, a fox terrier (Alex Mills), tries to bite into the metal and ends up chipping a tooth. Jerome (Tom Story) attempts to crush the can with an impressively undulating full-body flop.
Set to jaunty music that evokes silent-movie slapstick, the pineapple-hacking montage is one of the most diverting and well-calibrated sequences in “Three Men in a Boat,” a labor of love that boasts top-drawer talent and fetching design, but that sometimes hams a little too broadly. Director Derek Goldman has adapted the piece from Jerome K. Jerome’s 1889 comic novella — a digression-filled, lazy-day travelogue whose longtime status as a popular classic (Tom Stoppard wrote one of the multiple screen adaptations) has not translated to a particularly high profile in America today.
An eagerness to correct this lack of awareness and communicate the book’s humor to a new audience seems to have tempted Goldman (a fan of the novella since youth) and the actors to underline the comedy in a way that can seem strained. In particular, Mills’s canine caperings and yappy barks — the actor wears a gray hoodie with ears, and, later, adorably, a straw boater with ears — become a little wearying. And the actors playing the frivolous human protagonists (especially Story) sometimes hit too many notes of Bertie Wooster foppishness, over-signaling the ridiculous aspects of the tale, when a more restrained interpretation might better complement the story’s sneaky wit.
Still, this “Boat” sculls along with many pleasures in its hold — one of them being the now-poetic, now-chummily knowing, now-airily overserious voice of the book, which Goldman has skillfully channeled into his script. (Synetic is, of course, well-known for its wordless Shakespeare dramatizations, but other parts of its repertoire include text, as this production does.) The voice reflects the temperament of the three human title characters: idle gadabouts who treat trivial matters (such as a lack of mustard, or the use of a handkerchief in lieu of a belt) with epic solemnity.
When we first meet Jerome, George (Tim Getman) and Harris (Rob Jansen), they are loafing around a Victorian parlor, wearing smoking jackets, with brandy glasses in hand. Convinced (absurdly) that they are suffering from overwork, the three pals plan and embark on a boat trip. For us, the experience of the voyage is evoked with the help of Shane O’Loughlin’s atmospheric projections (riverbanks, a manor house, etc.) which drift across a decorative screen, while the other parlor furniture (including a fainting couch) stands in for sections of the boat. (Ivania Stack devised the apt period costumes, Kasey Hendricks handled props and Lisi Stoessel designed the set, which includes a rim of water around the stage.)
Sequences of stylized movement (Synetic co-founder Irina Tsikurishvili is credited as the show’s choreographer) and the narrative’s many flashbacks and digressions keep the action lively. In one amusing scene, the three friends look on, appalled, as Montmorency gleefully worries and kills a dozen chickens (cushions stand in for the unfortunate fowl). In another, Jerome and Harris mischievously sneak up on the sleeping George and wake him with a hand-held gong.
But the tone isn’t always boisterous: In one lyrical moment, Jerome waxes philosophical as he contemplates the night sky (effectively summoned by lighting designer Brittany Diliberto). Later on, the travelers fall into self-pitying melancholy, thanks to a recent shocking surprise, exacerbated by the discomforts of camping out. George attempts to lighten their spirits by twanging on the banjo he had the foresight to bring.
The three men — and their dog — don’t find the banjo much of a mood-lifter. But getting back to civilization, and tin-opening implements? That’s a different story.
Wren is a freelance writer.
Written and directed by Derek Goldman, based on the novella by Jerome K. Jerome; sound design, Thomas Sowers; music director, Joshua Morgan. About 100 minutes. Tickets: $15-$55. Through June 8 at 1800 S. Bell St., Arlington. Call 866-811-4111 or visit www.synetictheater.org .