Rough Crossing by Tom Stoppard, directed by Kevin G. Coleman.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"We’ll have a happy ending when we have an ending."
Sometimes you just need silly. Shakespeare & Company is providing for that need with their first production of the season, Rough Crossing, a play by Tom Stoppard, freely adapted by from a play by Ferenc Molnar, "Play at the Castle" and P.G. Wodehouse’s "The Play’s the Thing." Part of the same premise was used for the screenplay of Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy’s "Sweethearts." Writing a play to convince one person that another has been faithful, or unfaithful, and basing that play on things overheard, or read, by the other is at the heart of all these works. In this case Stoppard has given us the unusual: a highly comic farce without the trapping of farce.
Five men and one woman are among the passengers aboard the SS Italian Castle, bound for New York where a new play by Sandor Turai and Alex Gal will begin rehearsals starring Ivor Fish and Natasha Navratalova. Fish and Natasha have been lovers in the past and are an acting team that London adores. She is now involved with the composer of this new show, Adam Adam and it is his jealousy that must be assuaged if all is to end happily. Luckily for all concerned a new ship’s steward, Dvornicheck, is on hand to deliver cognac and the odd sermonette. There’s the plot, without giving away the details. For in this play, the comedy, tragedy, human energy and all that silliness is in the details.
Director Kevin Coleman has taken great care with this show’s physical necessities. From the first entrance of Turai, played for every bizarre nuance possible by the superb Jonathan Croy (at his very best here), we are aware that we are onboard a ship, that we are going to be at sea, that we are going to be tossed about in the human storm to come.
Jason Asprey as Turai’s collaborator, Gal, is half-funny without effort and funnier still when he sets his mind to it. Gal is almost a lunatic when it comes to comestables and quite one when he is claiming to be the genius half of the team. Asprey plays him straight and dramatic and in so doing brings out the depths of humor intended for his character. In a similar style Malcom Ingram portrays the clueless actor Ivor Fish who is at his finest in the love scene he himself constructs, then reconstructs on cue. In a cast that is well suited for their roles he is the only one who might be just a tad too old, but he acts the dolt so well that it doesn’t really matter in the end. He becomes a close fit for the part he plays.
Bill Barclay as Adam Adam has the most difficult role to play, that of a man who was a matinee idol until suddenly afflicted with a speech defect: nerves prevent him from speaking on cue. Now a composer in love with the prima donna he woos her with songs he cannot sing unless prompted by Turai or, ready to sing for minutes in advance but never sure when he might begin. His comedy timing, Barclay’s that is, is delightful.
The two stand-out performers, with nary a glitch in their interpretations of the Stoppard versions of the Wodehouse renditions of the Molnar characters are Elizabeth Aspenlieder as Natasha and LeRoy McClain as Dvornicheck. Natasha is Russian and, with sneer, smirk, chipmunk smile and an almost perfect grasp of accent, Aspenlieder takes every risk and dangerous leap possible with the part. She is delicious in this part, like a scented vodka over the purest chocolate. Her singing leaves something to be desired, but somehow even that becomes a real property of this star of London musicals and her pitch problems become endearing.
McClain as the man without sea-legs, but with the mind of a detective, the stomach of a flotilla of garbage trucks and the wisdom of the Sphinx is perfection. He is almost constantly in motion and his dialogue is the "enth" degree of silly. His work is the key that unlocks the hilarity chest that is the writing in this work. Stoppard has truly given him all the best moments and McClain makes the most of them without ever suggesting exaggeration - a remarkable feat in this instance.
Written in 1985 and produced in New York in 1997, the play includes music by Andre Previn who seems to "get" the period of the 1930s so well that the spirit of this shipboad adventure is encapsulated in his music. Additional bits by William Perry add nicely to the performance.
The period is also nicely pictured in the costumes designed by Govane Lohbauer, the very functional set by Carl Sprague and the lighting by Les Dickert. Director Coleman’s vision for this show would be classic farce, and he neatly replaces the missing "doors" with the farcical nature of characters acting for each other. It works wonderfully for this play. The phrase "laff riot," so commonly used to advertise off-Broadway mishaps in the 1970s, comes to mind to describe what you will get here, except that the words ring true this time. You do laugh out loud a lot and there’s nothing wrong in that. Entertainment without message is very much an entertainment.
Jonathan Croy as Sandor Turai; photo: Kevin Sprague
Malcolm Ingran as Ivor, Elizabeth Aspenlieder as Natasha, Bill Barclay as Adam; photo: Kevin Sprague
Aspenlieder, LeRoy McClain as Dvornicheck, Jason Asprey as Gal; photo: Kevin Sprague
Rough Crossing plays at the Founders’ Theatre in Lenox, Massachusetts at Shakespeare & Company’s property at 70 Kemble Street in repertoire this season through September 2. Check for dates and ticket availability at their website www.shakespeare.org or call 413-637-3353.