Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, June, 2007
“I never knew before how rotten a fellow could be outside his regular business…Every man is a foolishness when he’s out of his right place.” – Edgar Smith
Writers, even great writers, have styles and forms at which they excel and others in which they are uncomfortable. And even great writers write bad plays, particularly when they are writing in genres outside their comfort zone.
Actors, even great actors, are better suited to specific roles and types of plays than others. And even great actors can give weak performances, especially when they are asked to perform in styles they are uncomfortable and less skilled in.
With “Rough Crossing” we have Sir Tom Stoppard, one of the great playwrights of our day, decidedly out of his element “freely adapting” a 1926 farce by P.G. Wodehouse which was a translation/adaptation of a 1924 farce by Ferenc Molnár, which in turn was adapted from some 19th century French plays by Victorien Sardou. In other words Rough Crossing is a Czech-born writer’s version of an Englishman’s adaptation of a Hungarian’s take on French farce. I think that qualifies as a farce all by itself.
Tellingly, the original London production of Rough Crossing in 1984 was quite a failure and the show wasn’t imported to New York until 1997. I developed a desperate interest in seeing/reading the Wodehouse version (I don’t read Hungarian, otherwise the Molnár would interest me more) because this show is definitely in Wodehouse’s idiom, not Stoppard’s.
Then we have the very able actors of Shakespeare & Company, trying to perform in and spoof theatrical styles that are the very antithesis of what they are trained to do. What that company does best is Shakespeare and what Shakespeare does best is create intensely human characters who interact on a visceral level. Stoppard has created a bunch of characters who do nothing but talk, and rarely to each other. When the cast put their arms around each other’s necks at the show’s finale to perform a wildly awkward Broadway-type musical number, I was struck not only by how horribly out of place that looked, but also by the fact that that was the first time all evening I had seen those people really relate directly to one another.
You can imagine what you get when you toss a bunch of fish out of water on to a stage together. You get a gasping, flopping mess that is painful to watch, rendered all the more painful because you know full well what beautiful arcs and spirals these fish could be performing for you in their natural environment.
Rough Crossing is set aboard the S.S. Italian Castle (the Wodehouse and Molnar versions take place in an Italian castle) where the Sandor Turai (Jonathan Croy) and Alex Gal (Jason Asprey), a successful team of musical comedy writers, are making a trans-Atlantic crossing with their new young prodigy of a composer, Adam Adam (Bill Barclay), and the leads in their new musical The Cruise of the Dodo – Hungarian actress Natasha Navratalova (Elizabeth Aspenlieder) and Ivor Fish (Malcolm Ingram). Adam and Natasha are engaged to be married, but Adam is not aware that she had a previous affair with the married Ivor. Turai, Gal, and Adam board the ship a day early to surprise Natasha, and are in turn surprised to hear Ivor making love to her. Adam, who is suffering from an alarming speech impediment which causes him to pause interminably before finally being able to speak and then pouring out torrential monologues that never end, becomes despondent over Natasha’s infidelity and threatens to either commit suicide or jump ship. In order to save the show, Turai comes up with a brilliant plot to convince Adam that what he overheard was a rehearsal of new lines, rather than a real romantic tryst. Sloshing around in all this plot is the steward, Dvornicheck (LeRoy McClain), a man with no legs or head for shipboard service but a keen mind of the intricacies of a farce and a taste for cognac.
This is a competent cast who all do their utmost to make this weak show work. In his Director’s Notes Kevin Coleman compares the rehearsal process for this show to dismantling a pocket watch to understand how it runs, and then putting it back together again with no pieces left over. That is a complicated analogy. Perhaps a simpler approach to this play would have worked better.
I did not understand what Coleman had Croy doing with that shuffleboard court in the first scene, but it set the mood for me not to like or understand his Turai. And since Turai is the central figure in the show that got things off to a bad start. McClain was saddled with a great many of Stoppard’s long and long-winded monologues but handled his physical comedy well. Ingram could have done much more to make Fish dumber and more vainglorious, and therefore funnier.
Aspenlieder had to do most of the singing, which was a great pity since she doesn’t sing very well, certainly not well enough to convince me that she was the toast of the London stage as the star of operettas. Also, Natasha is supposed to be Hungarian and we all know what a Hungarian accent sounds like from watching Eva Gabor on Green Acres, but Aspenlieder speaks with a bad semi-Russian accent. Sometimes she swaps vowel sounds and sometimes she doesn’t. Of course if she switched them all the time she would be absolutely incomprehensible, and there are a few times when the switches are funny, like when “the Dodo is sailing into Naples” comes out “the Doodoo is sailing into Nipples.” This often successful foolishness is all Coleman and Aspenlieder’s invention, Stoppard merely stipulates that Natasha have an accent.
I liked Asprey’s interpretation of the endlessly grazing Gal, and got a chuckle out of the Algernon Moncrieff reference. Asprey played his role absolutely seriously, which of course made it terribly funny, and this production can use every laugh it can get. But the actor who really understood his character and this genre of performing was Barclay, whose Adam was an hilarious creation of mostly silent, physical comedy, a la Buster Keaton and Harpo Marx. Adam spends most of the play in absolute agony of one sort or another, and Barclay plays this to the hilt. He also served as the musical director for the show, a role in which he obviously faced far greater challenges, many of which were beyond rescue from even the most talented of musicians.
Carl Sprague has designed a fun set which successfully suggests a 1930's passenger ship while being compact and portable enough to fit the Company's need to perform several plays in repertory in the same space. Govane Lohbauer's costumes are depressingly bland. they could have done so much more to set the time period and the musical comedy genre of the play.
Wodehouse was making fun of Sardou, but Stoppard is making fun of Wodehouse and the specific idiom he, Guy Bolton, and Jerome Kern developed for the popular Princess Theatre musicals between 1914-1918. Produced on a shoe-string budget, these shows were the antithesis of the musical extravaganzas being produced elsewhere in New York in those days. While the Princess shows were considered remarkably coherent plot-wise in their day, they represent American musical comedy towards the end of its metamorphosis into a distinct and separate art form from a melting-pot of vaudeville, minstrel shows, Gilbert & Sullivan, and European operetta. Kern’s Show Boat in 1927 and Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! in 1943 turned the fashion completely away from convoluted boy-gets-girl inanity interspersed with musical numbers featuring pretty girls in tights to meaningful stories told through dialogue, music, and dance.
A few of the Princess shows have had modern incarnations – notably Very Good Eddie and Leave It To Jane - and these are trotted out by regional and academic theatres from time to time, but even so they have been updated to appeal to audiences who demand plots that actually make sense. Stoppard’s endless recitation of the hopelessly befuddled plot of The Cruise of the Dodo is funny if you know enough theatre history to understand it, otherwise it comes off as just more words, words, words.
The most painful portions of this production are the musical ones. Stoppard wrote the lyrics to three original songs for Rough Crossing and André Previn set them to music and composed the incidental music as well. I don’t think I ever wished that Previn and Stoppard would collaborate on a musical comedy, or even three bits of one. Nor can I say I have ever wanted to see Shakespeare & Company do musical comedy, any more than I have wanted to see my friends at the Mac-Haydn and the Theater Barn do Shakespeare. Different companies do different things well and no one can be all things to all people. This is simply an arena where Shakespeare & Company is out of its depth, and (dare I say it?) completely at sea.
Rough Crossing runs in repertory through September 2 at the Founders' Theatre at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, MA. The show runs two hours and ten minutes with one intermission and is suitable for the whole family. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-637-3353.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007