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A CurtainUp Review

Rough Crossing
By Les Gutman

The English Language provides a bountiful harvest of confusion. To students of English as a foreign language, this is a form of torture. To Tom Stoppard, it is a box of toys with which to play. In Rough Crossing, he takes the unusual (for him) step of cloaking this game in a romantic musical comedy.

Is the result successful? Well, yes and no. On the one hand, it's not terribly interesting, which may explain why it has taken almost fifteen years for this play to reach Manhattan. (His better known works play the same game better.) On the other hand, this production has succeeded in doing some nice things with the play.

The plot is a doubly derivative one. It is based on Molnar's The Play's the Thing, which in turn satirizes some 19th Century plays of Sardou (a protégé of Scribe. we are told). Two playwrights, Turai (Craig Smith) and Gal (Harris Berlinsky) are aboard a ship sailing from England to New York. They are accompanied by a young composer for their musical comedy named Adam (Tim Deak) and two actors, Ivor (Charles Parnell) and Natasha (Elise Stone). Natasha is Adam's fiancée. During the voyage, they must fine-tune and rehearse the play, for presentation upon arrival. The only other member of the cast -- and the glue that holds this production together -- is the ship's steward, Dvornichek (Christopher Black).

Trouble ensues when Adam overhears Natasha and Ivor in flagrante delicto. To keep the project from unraveling, Turai concocts an explanation: they were rehearsing a new ending for the play. Since this is a musical comedy, the explanation of course succeeds in building toward a happy ending.

There are really three plays in one here, and I have problems with each.

If we treat this as a musical comedy, it is certainly not a memorable one. The story is cute enough, albeit obviously not original.  The only scenes which are truly enjoyable are the ones in which Dvornichek is involved, either reveling in the comic potential of alternate meanings of words, expressions and idioms, or delightfully moving the play-within-the-play along. (Stoppard has also written lyrics to the songs in the show. In this regard, suffice it to say Lorenz Hart needn't worry about competition.) 

If we view the play as a display of Stoppardian intellectuality (here with heavy doses of Pirandello's influence), it is discordant. The comedy distracts us from ponderous thoughts about the line between reality and fiction, the significance and insignificance of words and ideas, and so forth. Rough Crossing essentially takes improvisation to its absurdist conclusion, but the play doesn't really want to go there.

Finally, there is the matter of the play-within-the-play. It's bad, as it is supposed to be, but an audience's willingness to watch something "so bad it's funny" dissipates quickly. Well acted here by Parnell and Stone, unfortunately with all of the unbearably overwrought hamminess demanded, it becomes tedious. (In one scene, Adam sits head in hand at the piano and Turai sits at a table reading, while Ivor and Natasha rehearse. If the characters are bored and distracted, why should the audience be otherwise?)

All of the above does not undercut the care and enthusiasm with which the actors here (mostly familiar members of Cocteau Rep's resident company) perform. Special mention should be made of Christopher Black whose Dvornichek (arguably the only character provided with really good material by Stoppard) has an edgy energy (sometimes reminiscent of Andy Kaufman) that is desparately needed here.

The sets for this production are terrific. Not only attractive and appropriate, they are carefully thought out and designed to go together and come apart almost jigsaw puzzle-like, to quickly accomodate the various scene changes required with a minimum of disruption.

The greatest praise for this production must be reserved for the collaborative efforts of director Scott Shattuck, set designer Edward Haynes, the performers and (I suspect) others who are unnamed for the amazingly realistic, if budget-conscious, rendition of the rough seas from which the show derives its name. Coming on the heels of the highly-publicized (and budget-be-damned) sets for Titanic, this exceptional effort, depending on an amazing amount of coordination, choreography and cleverness, should win some sort of special award. To say that it made half the audience seasick should provide some indication of how successful it is.

by Tom Stoppard 
Directed by Scott Shattuck 
with Craig Smith, Harris Berlinsky, Tim Deak, Elise Stone, Charles Parnell and Christopher Black 
Jean Cocteau Repertory at the Bouwerie Lane Theatre, 330 Bowery (212) 677-0060 
Opened August 9, closes October 19, 1997

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