Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’ve come to expect too much from a Tom Stoppard play by way of cerebral titillation and a love affair with his gift for philosophical wonder. Maybe the tempting early comparisons to Noel Coward’s witty repartee led me astray. Or perhaps Rough Crossing, a play Stoppard concocted well into the prime of his successful writing career, is just one of those requisite embarrassments for each and every writer, a play that he secretly wishes could be swept up under a rug, never to be discovered and produced.
Whatever it is, Rough Crossing, a farce “freely ” adapted from Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnar’s Play at the Castle, is one annoying piece of theatre. In no way does it mimic the beguiling and sophisticated flair of a Coward piece, nor does it offer dry and toasty wit in the style of grand British farce.
Don’t get me wrong, I like good farce just as much as anyone else; I even appreciate “dated ” material that may lose its audience from time to time. But Rough Crossing‘s comedy lost me altogether. I couldn’t help but feel as though I somehow missed the boat and was left out at sea in an ocean of sophomoric jokes and banal humor, wondering when the farcical ping-pong match of wordplay would become laughable.
Using his familiar play-within-a-play platform, Stoppard strives for laughs when the ship’s passengers include the play’s high-strung bard and his meek, overeating writing partner; their virtuoso French composer who has developed a strange speech impediment; two egocentric male and female co-stars; and one novice steward who gratefully guzzles down multiple glasses of cognac throughout the course of the evening. Mix in a passionate love affair between the composer and his infidel lady actress (whom he discovers is cheating on him with the leading man), and an impending musical production that must grow a head and a tail before the vessel docks in four days, and you have the trappings of what could become an original and sidesplitting episode.
Instead the plot deplores low-brow stereotype, making this one predictable, unoriginal, and very tedious story.
Nancy Robillard, a veteran director with a long list of solid rÃ©sumÃ© credits, does nothing to lift the material from the page to the deck. Her dull staging doesn’t help a script that relies heavily on physical humor and pacing with gusto. It’s a good thing she has a capable cast to work with.
As playwright Sandor Turai, Michael Russotto (a fine actor who usually offers cleaner performances) is consistently overshadowed by his shipmates. Ian Gould is a great scene thief as the swaying steward with a limited vocabulary of all things nautical (he refers to the smokestacks as “chimneys ” and has loads of fun with the term “poop deck “). Gould has a far better command of the Fawlty Towers style of comedy that Rough Crossing should offer. As the lovesick, burdened composer, Steven Tipton makes quirky character choices that pay off nicely.
By the time Rough Crossing arrives well into the second act and picks up a more buoyant pace, we are already bored with the under-developed characters. The intermittent laughs aren’t enough to forgive this ultimately pretentious and self-aggrandizing farce on a farce. Even if you love Stoppard (and there are few theatre buffs who don’t), it is practically impossible to appreciate a show where its playwright-within-the-play is criticized for his work and offers this self-prophetic defense: “It reads better than it plays! ” I’ll bet it does.