I don’t know who Hank Morgan’s cell-phone carrier is, but if it can really get service back in the sixth century, sign me up! Yes, that bit of innovation is just one of the many ways playwright Jeffrey Hatcher has modernized Mark Twain’s classic 1889 novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court for the modestly entertaining – if often nonsensical – stage version now being presented by The Acting Company and the Guthrie at the Pearl Theatre (through April 12).
Hatcher has changed many of the details from Twain’s original, including setting the prologue and epilogue in 2015 at the class reunion of 2000 at Hartford’s Henry Morgan High, where our hero Hank (an appealing Andy Nogasky), a schlubby wannabe inventor, falls while wearing his family’s ancient armor and ends up back in the court of King Arthur (played with a fey ditziness by the funny Andy Mondschein).
Quickly sentenced to death, Hank has to convince the locals, most notably Arthur’s chief wizard Merlin (Ian Gould, hamming it up to the hilt) of his “magic powers.” Here, he uses that amazingly working cell phone to discover an impending solar eclipse, and – using Bonnie Tyler’s classic pop hit “Total Eclipse of the Heart” as a quasi-spell – achieves his purpose, saves his life and is soon appointed to be Arthur’s new wizard, complete his own servant, the kindhearted Clarence (the adorable Grant Fletcher Prewitt, in a quietly scene-stealing turn.)
That job, however, basically requires inventing new weapons of mass destruction, which Hank is loath to do. (However, as we soon learn, when soap-on-a-rope is used in conjunction with a speeding horse, guess what happens!) And eventually, he is knighted – as part of a plot by the evil Merlin – and sent on a quest to help local lass Sandy (a superb Suzy Kohane), which results in being captured by Arthur’s scheming sister Morgan LeFay (a deliciously over-the-top Susanna Stahlman) and her queenie son Mordred (the sassy Joshua David Robinson).
Hatcher fills the script with lots of silly anachronisms and pop-culture references, including many nods to the musical Camelot. (And yes, Guinevere and Lancelot – portrayed by Angela Janas and Torsten Johnson – show up, but have precious little to do). There’s humor here for all generations, along with plenty of heart, notably in the romance of Hank (called Sir Boss after his Hugo Boss t-shirt) and Sandy. Most importantly, Hatcher retains Twain’s message about the dangers of war and weaponry.
The whole enterprise (which clocks in at 105 minutes) is swiftly paced by director Ian Belknap. Neil Patel’s super-simple set is functional. Constance Donnelly provides some excellent costuming, especially for the ladies. It’s not a brilliant evening, but it’s a whole lot better than two hours in Hartford.