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I remember thinking a few years back, while watching an uproarious, very accomplished Travesties from the Washington Shakespeare Company, that the troupe should change its name immediately to the Washington Stoppard Companysomething it could accomplish without abandoning its then-new logo.
The advantages seemed obvious. Among theater’s four big S’s, only one lacked a local home. D.C. had a surfeit of troupes nominally devoted to the Bard, what with WSC, the Shakespeare Theatre, and the Folger Shakespeare Library Theatre, and there were stages philosophically devoted to Shaw (Washington Stage Guild) and Sondheim (Signature Theatre). A company dedicated to Stoppard would diversify the high-end playgoer’s diet, ensuring that no season would pass without at least a couple of mind-bendingly clever outings by the stage’s pre-eminent wordsmith.
These days, the urgency has faded a bit, other companies having taken note of the box-office success that almost always attends a Stoppard opening. Arena Stage and the Potomac Theater Project both fared well with Arcadia. The Studio Theatre, having triumphed with Indian Ink and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, opened The Invention of Love simultaneously with a Broadway mounting two years ago, then spent several SRO months turning away overflow crowds. And Longacre Lea mounted a terrific and well-received Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth a few summers back.
I suspect MetroStage’s mostly hilarious Rough Crossingin which the playwright chronicles the insane machinations of a theater company trying to rework a very bad musical comedy while en route to New York on an ocean linerwill join its predecessors in becoming a hot ticket. Unlike Stoppard’s better-known comedies, this very loose adaptation of a play-within-a-play opus by Ferenc Molnar is neither a philosophical nor a political puzzle; it’s simply an empty-headed romp in which snifters of cognac almost never reach their intended imbibers, choppy seas affect individuals in oddly individual ways, and puns get tossed around with a randomness that one character quite accurately calls “sine qua nonchalance.”
Things are already a bit screwy as the first scene begins, on the deck of the liner. A cabin steward on his maiden voyagea fact attested to by his unfamiliarity with ship’s terminology; he calls the smokestacks “chimneys” and the captain’s bridge the “balcony”weaves unsteadily on landlubber legs even though the ship is still at anchor. He’s bringing a cognac for Turai, one of two co-librettists writing a musical set on a ship called the Dodo. (It was going to be the Dido, but a secretary’s typing mistake has long since cemented itself in the cast’s collective memory.)
The drinkthe first of many to go astrayends up being consumed by the steward, when Turai corrects his statement that he almost fell “down a hole in the deck” by saying, “that’s ‘down the hatch.’” “Don’t mind if I do,” says the steward, and…well, you get the drift.
Other misunderstandings abound, partly because the musical’s composer has a speech impediment that causes a long-enough delay in his every utterance that he always seems to be replying to the wrong question, and partly because the musical on which these folks are working is so convoluted that even the authors can’t keep its plot points straight. And because the composer is engaged to the leading lady, whose leading man is her former lover, the possibilities for confusion increase exponentially.
Nancy Robillard’s antic staging looks a trifle underdesigned; Jos. B. Musumeci regularly works miracles on a budget, but there’s only so much luxury liner he can create with plywood and mauve fabric. Still, the cast is always engaging, and during the second act, it’s downright riotous in spots, even if, on opening nightpossibly the hurricane had given the company a rough crossing from dress rehearsals into previewsthe play was under-rehearsed. The punch lines were all landing smartly enough, but the rhythms seemed off. No doubt they’ll be on by the time this hits print.
In Michael Russotto and Jack Vernon, MetroStage has amusingly mismatched co-librettists (the former dryly supercilious, the latter goofily obtuse); in Nicole Mestres McDonnell and Carl Randolph, it has an appropriately dynamic diva and high-strung leading man; and in Ian Gould it has a rubber-kneed, lightning-tongued steward with an amusingly infinite capacity for cognac. Best of all, it has Steven Tipton, who not only plays a mean piano when required but also makes the composer’s speech impediment funny, while somehow managing to squeeze pathos into his pauses.
That Stoppard and Robillard have found a way to get four separate laughs from music cues in the space of 30 seconds, and created at least 20 deliriously diverting diversions for that snifter…well, count that as a bonus.
Marty Lodge entirely lives up to everything you’ll have heard about him as the title character in the Round House Theatre’s The Drawer Boy. In Michael Healey’s often comic melodrama, Lodge plays a Canadian farmer named Angus, inhabiting him with such an astonishingly supple blankness that the character is captivating from the opening-scene moment in which he starts making a sandwich and misplaces the bread.
Actually, Angus’ housemate and fellow farmer, Morgan (Mitchell Hébert), takes the bread while Angus isn’t looking, but Angus has suffered a brain injury that replaced his short-term memory with headaches, so he doesn’t know that. And when he turns back to a table that had bread on it a moment earlier but doesn’t have it now, he notes the fact as soberly as Buster Keaton wouldand then proceeds as if nothing whatever were amiss.
The author keeps the origins of Angus’ injury under wraps for most of the evening, primarily by having Morgan and a young acting student named Miles (Eric Sutton), who’s soaking up farm life as part of a theatrical project, talk in circles. Miles is earnest to the point of simplemindedness (“Do cows mind being milked?…How do they feel about getting interfered with?”), which is cute for a while, though the comic value of the lad’s blind acceptance of Morgan’s sarcastic pronouncements is not as bountiful as the author seems to think.
Morgan’s steadfast refusal to tell this young interloper anything substantial about himself or Angus is more plausible, though, and it has the effect of focusing the audience’s attention squarely on the guy who’s sitting opaquely on the sidelines. When he starts to recover a few memories, audience members are encouraged to feel the intensity of the accomplishment for themselves, and from the responses around me it was clear that many in the opening-night crowd did. Even once the outlines of the story become clearthe author is venturing into Of Mice and Men territory, albeit without a compass or much purposeAngus remains intriguing.
Would that the same could be said for the script, which toys with themes of guilt, responsibility, and friendship without ever blending them in a way that has any consequence for the characters. You can be a big fan of forgiveness and sunshine in both relationships and playwriting, and still think the revelations of the final scenes should reasonably lead to conflict of some sort. Still, Daniel De Raey’s production is smartly acted and gorgeously designed. James Kronzer has crafted a farmhouse that very nearly tells you more about the characters than the author does, with a second story that turns transparent when bathed in Daniel MacLean Wagner’s sensual twilights and rapturous dawns. Neil McFadden’s sound design conjures everything from crickets to tractors so effectively that it wouldn’t be at all surprising to have them hop or roll on from the wings. The play gets so much production support, it’s hard not to wish the playwright were taking chances that would make that support more than merely decorative. CP