We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

An infinite number of critics considering the complicated amusements of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead would almost surely come up with the right interpretation—assuming of course that they’d managed first to corral the philosophers, come up with a consensus on what constitutes the good, and deduce from that some general set of ground rules pointing in the direction of “right.” But as with the monkeys-typing-Shakespeare theorem, the process (as I’ve discovered during a weekend of stacks-diving at the local library) would generate a ponderous lot of rubbish, a great windbagging heap of “epistemologicallys” and “semiologicallys” and “hermenueticallys” to be slogged through in search of the prize.

Which prize, if you ask me, would read something like this: Tom Stoppard’s breakthrough play, with its Shakespearean nobodies mired in a Beckettian nowheresville, stands four decades after its creation as a dazzlingly clever, generously emotional thing, more a wise and witty quodlibet than the mere theatrical parasite it’s sometimes been dismissed as. And in the lean, urgent production Kathleen Akerley has created with her Longacre Lea ensemble, it’s the emotion and the wisdom that resonate—the agonies, and the small ecstasies too, of two characters caught up in someone else’s story, scrabbling for purchase on the slick pages of a script whose stage directions they can’t help but follow.

Not that the wit goes begging: This is Akerley’s second pass at the play, after a gender-gaming take on it circa 1999, and it’s a crisp, lively production, even if the show’s three-act, two-intermission structure occasionally makes it feel a little long. (Then again, the air conditioning at the Callan Theatre was out on opening night, so that moment of torpor in the middle of Act 2 might have been merely climatological.) The jokes tends toward the mordant, it’s true, especially after Stoppard introduces the Player and his troupe…

Wait, I see a little backfilling is in order. “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead” is an offhand line from the last scene of Hamlet, you’ll recall, and Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead is a play by Tom Stoppard that imagines how thoroughly un-offhand that sentence might seem to the hapless pair whose names anchor it. That’s the crux: To Shakespeare, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are interchangeable nonentities, more a two-headed plot device than a pair of actual characters; to Hamlet, they’re disloyal friends, objects of mockery, pawns in the deadly chess game of court politics. To Stoppard, they’re everybody who’s ever wondered whether their little lives can be said to matter much in a universe whose rules remain stubbornly opaque. They’re us, that is—and they’re this tragedy’s heroes.

We meet ’em in a lull, two guys waiting in a barren patch alongside a lonely tree—Mr. Godot, please proceed to the white courtesy phone—passing the time with a coin-tossing marathon and a game of questions that, by design, can’t have answers. Jonathon Church is Akerley’s thoughtful, anxious Guildenstern, tormented by the feeling that there’s a pattern he can sense but not quite grasp; Jason Stiles is the cheerful, oblivious Rosencrantz, content simply to move through the days in good company. The tree, fabricated by set designer Abby Wood, is a striking industrial sheaf of metal ribbons, and the balance of the ensemble an equally striking and thoroughly industrious foursome.

That’s right: Six performers, total, for a play performed by a cast of something like 34 in its Broadway premiere back in 1968. (Even the very first staging, at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1966, had an 11-member ensemble.) Cost was a factor, to be sure, but there’s a self-challenge and a conceptual wink-nudge in Akerley’s number, too. She’s giving a nod toward an early bit of dialogue, reproduced on the cover of the playbill, in which a confused Guildenstern mangles the probability-theory formula—he tries to get the job done with six monkeys—but in referencing that passage, she’s underscoring that the line itself is a joking Stoppardian confession about the play’s debt to Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author. Witty, that—but dangerous, too, because the foursome who aren’t playing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have to create the whole of Elsinore’s court along with the quartet of itinerant actors who link the play’s two worlds.

It’s a challenge Akerley’s foursome meets admirably. At their head is the menacingly charming Michael John Casey, who plays…well, the Player—you remember, the fellow Hamlet enlists within Hamlet to stage the play’s-the-thing that catches the conscience of the scheming king. He’s the leader of that group of strolling players (his three chameleon colleagues are Michael Glenn, Alexander Strain, and Jason Lott), and he turns out, in this nicely melancholy R&G, to know a little something about a character’s dependency on author and audience. It feels, in the bitter, lyrical language Stoppard gives the Player, a lot like an increasingly uncertain mankind longing for an interested Observer: “We pledged our identities…that someone would be watching. And then, gradually, no one was.…The silence…imposed itself upon us; it was obscene.”

Casey’s marvelously precise performance toggles on a twitch from ingratiating to knowing to decidedly dangerous and back again, and it’s no disrespect to the performers in the title roles to say that the play shivers with energy each time their path crosses his troupe’s. Glenn, Strain, and Lott prove similarly adept at the quick emotional change, with Glenn doubling as Hamlet’s prince, Strain as both Gertrude and Ophelia, and Lott as Claudius—and Akerley’s direction draws clean, graceful lines to distinguish the action of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern from the events in Shakespeare’s tale.

As for Stiles and Church: The play is theirs, especially in the third act, aboard the England-bound ship we never see in Hamlet. There, in this place that exists in Shakespeare only as an after-action report, the two come as close to freedom as they’ll ever get. In a bit of play-acting (they’re still performing, true, but in this unwritten place and time it’s an improvisation, the nearest theatrical thing to free will), they discover the treachery in the letter they’re carrying, the death warrant Claudius has inscribed for Hamlet. And they choose…not to make a choice. Not to act. They decide to wait, to be cautious, to let others decide—and in so doing, they seal their fates. Hamlet swaps the letters, the pirates board the ship, and suddenly: “We’ve traveled too far,” Church’s despairing Guildenstern says. “Our momentum has taken over; we move idly toward eternity, without possibility of reprieve or hope of explanation.”

Indeed—though Akerley’s eloquent staging of the play’s funny, brutal, lump-in-the-throat conclusion insists that there are opportunities for choosing right up until we make the last choice. If death must be the end of us all, as Stoppard’s sorry heroes discover, it’s how we face it, not whether we understand its whys, that ultimately matters.CP