Rough (but Snappy) Crossing
Mayhem and melodrama rule the high seas in Tom Stoppard’s transatlantic comedy of breezy wit and sharp timing
The name Tom Stoppard usually means philosophical theatre – works like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, The Real Inspector Hound, or Travesties. And perhaps that was what theatre-goers at Vienna’s English Theatre expected when they bought their tickets for Stoppard’s Rough Crossing. But – surprise! – they are met with a delightfully airy musical comedy instead.
Sailing from Southampton to New York in the 1930s, Stoppard’s cast of dysfunctional characters must rally to finish a play scheduled to open the following week. But they grapple with relationship hiccups and one questionable ending, as the seas turn stormy in more ways than one.
A Stoppard script depends on timing (this one particularly), and director Philip Dart’s fine ensemble of British actors have it nailed, playing well off each other and never losing pace. Andrew Macbean and Robert Traynor, as Turai and Gal, are the "Odd Couple" of playwrights: Gal, cool, witty and always eating; Turai, skittish, sharp and impatient (because of low blood sugar, suggests Gal). Scoring their play is Adam, a lovesick composer played by Christopher Berry. Adam also gets tongue-tied, a crippling impediment that often renders him literally speechless.
The stars of the trio’s masterpiece-in-progress are Natasha and Ivor, who once enjoyed a fling that is still not quite flung. Now engaged to Adam, Natasha is a commanding presence, but genuinely kind-hearted. She loves Adam, but her reluctance to fully reject Ivor despite lingering antagonisms ("You remember your wife, Pirhana," snaps Natasha; "Paloma," Ivor corrects) nearly pickles the entire production. But Natasha is a crafty character, played with endearing edge by Basienka Blake.
Michael Fenner shines as Natasha’s former lover Ivor, who is an insufferable, blithering idiot. Despite (or perhaps because of) this, he is hopelessly lovable. He manages to mangle even the smallest instruction, but he comes into his own with a fantastically snappy monologue in the second act.
Further complicating matters is Adam Venus’ Dvornichek, an unbalanced first-time ship’s steward, whose frequent misunderstandings exasperate an already short-fused Turai and play out in delightful chaos, like Abbott and Costello’s old sketch "Who’s on First".
The force spinning this madness into a frenzy, though, is undoubtedly Macbean’s Turai, shrewdly capturing the essence of a writer’s prima donna egotism. His quips are dramatically over the top, his tone razor-sharp and his wording tight and scathing – even a flick of his wrist can slice one’s self-esteem in two – eliciting shocked gasps from the delighted audience.
All jabs aside, a true gem is Berry’s portrayal of a character who is nearly mute, a tricky job in such a dialogue-centred script. Through a clenched mouth and wide eyes, Berry makes him the most relatable character. Whether bursting with joy or staring blankly at a piano in a heartsick daze, Adam is a touching testament to the power of silence.
Throughout two hours, the electric dialogue sent sparks flying. The second act was truly radiant. As Turai the playwright seems to have pulled his fragmented show together, Stoppard’s script pulls out one last maddening twist that threatens to unravel it all. The audience roared its delight at the dramatist’s brilliant sleight of hand, and we left the theater alive with the irrepressible energy of a Tom Stoppard tour de force.