Tuesday, November 6, 2012
Theater review: Irving Arts Center’s Rough Crossing washes up lots of confusion, few laughs
There were not enough life jackets and boats to save the audience from this production.
IRVING It was a nice, balmy night and a short drive over to Irving Arts Center. A light comedy set on a trans-Atlantic ocean liner with hints of Noel Coward in the air was having its opening. The play was written by a satirical, farcical writer. Everything was in place for a lovely, humorous evening of theatre. But, as with the Titanic, there were not enough life jackets and boats to save the audience from this performance’s Rough Crossing.
ICT MainStage is presenting Tom Stoppard’s play and, at first look, all seemed well. Ellen Doyle Mizener’s set encompassed the wide stage of the Dupree Theater. It consisted of a portion of the deck of the ocean liner, complete with wooden deck lounge chairs, a few white-clothed tables with chairs, a shuffle board game stage right and a continuously entered and exited portal-windowed door up stage left. A metal spiral staircase leads up to the next tier with a fake deck railing suspended across the stage upstage. Another section of railing is stationed downstage right. An enormous full moon and sunset pink and orange clouds are set in the darkening blue sky via the back wall scrim. Sam Nance’s lighting subtly took the play into the night and then into daylight with gorgeous white clouds in Act II. His subtle use of the ship’s lighting playing of the water and reflecting back on the downstage railing further set the illusion.
Richard Frohlich supplied appropriate late 1920-30s jazz music for pre-show and interspersed Cole Porter and Noel Coward in between scenes and acts. The ocean liner’s horn and seagull calls all supplemented the ambiance of the ship. Tory Padden certainly had feel of the time period down pat. Argyle socks and vest, light gray-on gray plaid suits or nautical blue sports jacket with captain’s hat were choices for the men, and a satin gown, satin boa-feathered dressing gown, navy blue satin palazzo pants and nautical top clothed for the woman. Crisp white pants and short jacket uniformed the ship’s steward. The woman’s hair was short and stylishly waved on one side; very “Anything Goes” correct. Fernando Lara had his hands full with all the food and drink props, silver tea sets and tray after tray of cognac snifters. Everything was there visually but the problems with the play and its execution listed so far to one side as to almost capsize.
The first problem came from the script itself. Tom Stoppard is a glorious writer of comedy and farce. Picking from his vast work in theatre, film, television and radio, he penned and won armfuls of awards for such works as Travesties, The Real Thing, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Arcadia, the co-written Shakespeare in Love, the fabulous Brazil and the rewritten Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. He also wrote the upcoming film Anna Karenina. So Stoppard must have had writer’s block or been going through a rough patch to come up with this “play rehearsal within a play” mess.
“Freely adapted” from Ferenc Molnar’s Play at the Castle, Rough Crossing is set aboard the S.S. Italian Castle, carrying playwrights Sandor Turai and Alex Gal, leading lady Natasha Navratilova, her leading man Ivor Fish, and composer Adam Adam as they journey to New York City to open their new “musical”, The Cruise of the Dodo, which is in need of severe re-write. The convoluted plot has Adam, in love with Natasha, overhearing Ivor wooing her from the ship’s upper tier. Mistaking the incident as a romantic interlude, Adam goes into mourning while the two playwrights devise a plot, rewriting to convince him that the actors were only rehearsing the play’s new ending. Add the fact that Adam has a deep stutter and cannot say how he feels, the overly-attentive and obliging steward Dvornichek who, with the ship’s captain, both dream of being playwrights, and the play nearly drowned from no strong central plot and too many subplots.
I had so many question marks written in my notes such as why were the characters supposedly speaking with British accents, yet had Russian, Slovakian, or Italian names? Why did the steward weave with the ocean’s waves when no one else did, and then have perfect sea legs while the others stumbled with the rough water (found out later it was written in the script to be part of the humor)? This is where the second problem came in, with the direction of Rough Crossing by Kelly Scott. The theatre’s website named it a farce, though Stoppard does not. If indeed Scott intended it to be presented as farce, then the play did not live up to that genre. Farce is fast-paced high comedy on the edge of camp, and her direction was anything but that. Easily, the first 10-15 minutes of Act I were confusing with no clarification as to who the characters were and why they were onboard heading to New York. Yes, that’s the playwright’s fault but the exposition was there, just not clearly identified. The pace was deadly slow and more melodramatic than the rapid-paced, broader nature of farce. The humor was lost among slow cues and a sense that no one knew exactly what they were doing. Blocking was haphazard as though made up, though their movements with the listing ship were well done and funny.
Character direction was also hit or miss, each picking one emotion or two and sticking to it throughout. I completely understood how Stoppard’s script was less than easy to work with, but each actor seemed to be performing monologues instead of vital action/reaction. Scott Nixon, playing playwright Sandor Turai, had two levels – bored or angry – and stayed within those from start to finish. I never really got from his character why he even cared enough about Adam to go to the trouble of writing a new ending to the play. Nixon seemed to be distant from the rest of the actors, only coming up for humor with the running joke of never being served his cognac.
Billy Betsill’s characterization of playwright Alex Gal was also perplexing. Starting out British, in Act II his accent shifted to German, to American, then back to “British”, all in two or three sentences. My ears were not the only ones to notice that. And the proper English dandy he portrayed in the first act relaxed to a more pronounced, how shall I say it, “swishy” one, wrist gestures and all.
I guess having Adam Adam, played by Charles Wallace, stutter so he could not well express his feelings for Natasha was the plot twist to have the playwrights write that alternate ending. Wallace’s stutter led to explosive outbursts when he finally spoke, making his lines unintelligible. That’s not a good thing when the play was already so confusing.
Janelle Suzanne Lutz played leading lady, Natasha Naratilova, with all the time period’s theatrical, melodramatic flair, almost hand to forehead, but I would have liked to also see her character when not “in acting mode”. It would have made the flirtation with Fish and the love she has for Adam more believable. Comedy comes with the delineations between the “two Natashas”.
Jackie L. Kemp, a wonderful, chameleon actor, had the hardest character to wrap his talent around. Left with a silly Italian-esque stereotype, his only humor had to come from continually readjusting his obvious, over-coiffed wig. The most entertaining part between them came when Lutz and Kemp beautifully sang one of the songs originally written for the play by Andre Previn. And this fact made it massively confusing as to why Adam and Naratilova, finally realizing each others’ love, then sang snippets of three current pop songs when there were so many great, appropriate choices had could have been made.
Partially due to Stoppard’s lines written for steward Dvornichek, but largely due to the actor’s portrayal, Bryan S. Douglas’ novice ocean liner steward, dim to his stated position on the ship but brilliant in caring out his duties, easily stole the show. Always on the mark, drink or food in hand, Douglas’ portly quality in comparison to his short jacket was comical in itself. The play’s running joke of Dvornichek mistakenly thinking he is being offered the many cognacs ordered was about the only time the audience laughed. Douglas understood the comedy as written and attempted to push the farce as apparently directed, but the script held him back too many times. He persevered, however, and his portrayal and talent kept the play afloat each time it looked to be sinking.
The finale of this production of Rough Crossing had the actors suddenly come out of character, lined up downstage, singing and kicking like Radio City Rockettes, some song apparently from the “play within the play”. As it was not clearly indicated as such, it instead became a strangely - bizarre visual ending to an already strange play. I could see and feel the embarrassment from the actors.
ICT MainStage’s Rough Crossing is merely a pleasant journey on a ship to who knows where. Noel Coward it never will be, but if you like that style and are ok with the lightest of comedies and smiling versus laughing out loud, then this production will be to your liking. Not all theatre has to have deep meaning and content. Sometimes just getting out of the house and going to the theatre is half the fun.
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