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A CurtainUp Review
On the Razzle
By Les Gutman
One false move and we could have a farce on our hands.---Tom Stoppard
The big news at Jean Cocteau Rep these days is that it has a new Producing Artistic Director, David Fuller. On the Razzle is directed by his predecessor, Scott Shattuck, who with it leaves an important lesson that will serve the company well in the future: know your strengths and exploit them boldly. One of the Cocteau's most successful efforts in recent memory, Razzle serves as both a boisterous send-off and a jubilant welcome.
It's a huge show, and Shattuck has somehow found a way to squeeze its cast of sixteen into seven disparate settings within the cozy confines of the Bouwerie Lane Theatre. A remarkably dexterous set design, ample use of the aisles and a great deal of running by actors are all essential components of the energetic finished product.
Stoppard's play requires a great deal of energy. Built on the bones of Austrian playwright Johann Nestroy's 19th Century farce, Einen Fux will er sich machen (which is the source of Wilder's The Matchmaker and hence Hello, Dolly! as well, albeit with no trace of Dolly Levi), Razzle is a virtually nonstop cavalcade of high and low Stoppardian wordplay. While some of Stoppard's verbal gymnastics might have benefited from a little restraint on the throttle and a bit more attention to what was flying by, it matters very little here; this is Stoppard just having fun: no philosophy, no intellectual undercurrent, not even any literary references. The audience is kept laughing through two hours of shenanigans, mistaken identities (many of which turn on a prevailing fetish for a certain Scottish plaid), malapropisms and romances.
Zangler (Harris Berlinsky), the twisted-tongued proprietor of a fancy grocery in a small Austrian town, plans to marry Mme. Knorr (Elise Stone), the owner of a still-fancier women's apparel shop in Vienna. In shaky preparation for his sophisticated new life, he orders new clothes and hires Melchior (Jason Crowl) as a personal assistant. ("I woke up this morning feeling like a new man. So I got one.") He arranges to dispatch his niece, Marie (Jennifer Lee Dudek), to his sister-in-law in Vienna, Miss Blumenblatt (Marilyn Bernard), to shield her from the deadbeat, Sonders (Jolie Garrett), who is wooing her. (Zangler: "I thought you said you had no debts!" Sonders: "No outstanding debts -- run-of-the-mill debts I may have." Most importantly, as he departs for Vienna, Zangler entrusts the day-to-day operation of his business to his former head clerk, Weinberl (Craig Smith), and an apprentice, Christopher (Tim Deak). The mantle of responsibility goes quickly to the heads of these two country bumpkins: they go "on the razzle" to Vienna.
In Stoppard's Vienna, Murphy's Law is in full force. In no time, Weinberl and Christopher catch sight of Zangler and disguise themselves as mannequins in the window of, naturally, Mme. Knorr's House of Fashion. Circumstances propel the duo into a fancy restaurant in the company of Mme. Knorr and her customer, Frau Fischer (Angela Madden), who has been introduced as Weinberl's new wife, albeit under the name of Fischer. It is the same restaurant, of course, to which Zangler intends to take Mme. Knorr. Several waiters, a constable, a coachman and a carefully-positioned screen later, things start to settle down, but not until the eloping Sonders and Marie enter the scene and a few other romantic entanglements manifest themselves. ("I'm not the woman you think I am", Christopher offers at one point. "I'm not even the woman you think is the woman you think I am.")
This is precisely the sort of frolic that shows the Cocteau's resident company at its festive best. A padded Harris Berlinsky epitomizes Zangler's mix of frustration, anticipation and pretension. Craig Smith gets Weinberl's fever-pitched reactions and unshackled sense of adventure just right, even if he sometimes seems a bit too cosmopolitan, while Tim Deak splendidly brings the never-failing wide-eyed excitement of an urban novice to his Christopher. Elise Stone and company newcomer Angela Madden make fine Viennese women who gamely maintain straight faces notwithstanding all of what Miss Blumenblatt calls "un-Austrian excess."
Unless you too deplore excess, or are allergic to plaid, you're just about guaranteed a good time.