Body Politic Theatre

Rough Crossing is a hoot, a good time, as pure an escape as when the bell rang and you ran out of school for recess. We all need that recess from time to time. Sure, you’ll have to leave the theater and confront again all of life’s problems; Rough Crossing won’t resolve them. Not to mention that anxiety of the 80s, that drive to become a more successful wage slave, a better tennis player, top of the heap. But must everything be a confrontation? Is there no way out of this?

Theater has always been my great escape, a transport into a world of larger possibilities. But it doesn’t work that way all the time, indeed, most of the time. Have you ever gone to a play and felt like you were there solely to live up to its pretensions of drama, humor, or even, ah, the meaning of life? It’s like a needy relationship, where your partner keeps reminding you of your responsibilities and commitment. And after you’ve reexamined yourself for the umpteenth time, and poked your fingers in the festering sores of humanity, you feel like you’ve performed some odious public service, like witnessing an electrocution. Ask not what theater can do for you, but what you can do for theater! Sometimes, though, theater isn’t like that.

Rough Crossing is a takeoff on those old show-biz musicals like Anything Goes, Dames at Sea, and perhaps a dozen others. Tom Stoppard adapted the play from Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnar’s Play at the Castle. Stoppard placed the action, appropriately enough, on one of those transatlantic luxury liners of yesteryear. The principal characters are members of a theater troupe, who are desperately engaged in rewriting and rehearsing their play before an all too imminent opening in New York. But never fear. Their problems are not your problems. None of these passengers are real anyway. They’re actors, and the characters they play aren’t real either, but rather absurd stereotypes. Relax. It’s a play, and you’re just along for the ride.

So here’s this theater troupe, including a pompous playwright, a disheveled collaborator, a composer with a speech impediment, an exotic actress, and a twit of an actor. They face two major problems. First, the play is unfinished, and the collaborator’s solution–to introduce the character of an Irish cop who explains everything–is unsatisfactory to the playwright. Second, the composer, who is in love with the actress, overhears a romantic interlude between her and the actor. The composer becomes so overwrought that he threatens to throw himself overboard, which would also tend to scuttle the troupe’s opening night. Turai, the playwright, proposes to solve both these professional and personal problems in one stroke. He makes a transcript of the aforementioned interlude, which he overheard along with the composer and the collaborator, and plans to use it as an ending to his play. That way, when the composer hears the same dialogue in a rehearsal, he’ll think that the romantic interlude was just an earlier rehearsal. And, if you think that’s ridiculous, you should hear the plot to the rest of Turai’s play, which is so convoluted that the collaborator can’t even figure it out.

Subterfuge, comic misunderstanding, wordplay, and satire–the stuff of a Marx Brothers movie. Although no one will ever replace the Marx Brothers, Stoppard upholds something of their tradition. Stoppard’s really at his best when he’s making fun of something (I read once that he used to be a theater critic). Stoppard’s 15-minute version of Hamlet (Dogg’s Hamlet) and his spoof of murder mysteries (The Real Inspector Hound) are earlier examples of this talent. Both plays, like Rough Crossing, are quite accessible to experienced actors, who seem to know just how far to overplay a part for the best effect.

Body Politic provides these actors. Paula Scrofano (as Natasha, the actress) has an accent that sounds like a combination of that other Natasha (from The Bullwinkle Show) and Madeline Kahn in Blazing Saddles. Donald Brearley (as Dvornichek, the steward) plays the classic comic servant role, drinking more drinks than he serves, stumbling around on a calm sea yet rocking steady on rough waters. Roger Mueller, James McCance, and John Reeger (as the playwright, collaborator, and actor, respectively) all portray not just the epitome of what you might expect, but a precise satire of that epitome. Particularly delightful is Joseph Sadowski (as Adam, the composer). Adam has picked up an odd speech impediment that interposes a lag between when he hears something and when he can respond. It’s a corny gag, but Stoppard uses it for a lot of remarkable comic non sequiturs. Still, it’s Sadowski’s excellent timing that has you hanging on his unsaid words, and laughing when he finally spits them out.

Even more striking than the individual performances is the way the actors work together, and I credit director Pauline Brailsford for galvanizing this ensemble. Rough Crossing plays well because it comports itself as a coherent satire, and not as a showcase for divergent acting styles. And Brailsford seems to have pulled it all together, not with whips and chains but with a sense of play.

What you might find unusual about Rough Crossing is that it has very little music–only two songs, composed by Andre Previn. You might also find it unusual to find Previn, more commonly associated with various philharmonics around the globe, in on this venture of Stoppard’s. But the music is just as silly as the dialogue. My favorite of the two songs is “This Could Be the One,” which features the wonderful lyric, “When I saw you, wedding bells rang tea for two.” As far as I’m concerned, that says it all.

For some reason, my strongest recollection of Rough Crossing isn’t the witty dialogue or the production values. I mean, it was for fun, a romp, great while it lasted. Nothing wrong with that. But what sticks with me is the uncanny feeling of being in that audience. More often I feel like I’m just another of a fragmented mass of alienated individuals, stuck in a dark room, imploding emotionally. But this time–starting with intermission–I got this feeling of society. Over to my left was a middle-aged couple, the man slouched down with his tie askew, and the woman whispering to him. There was a guppie couple to my right, both in cotton sweaters and very alert. There was even a bony guy, alone, chin on fists, elbows on knees. But none of these people seemed cut off in any way. They were all part of some Norman Rockwell painting. “The Audience,” you might call it. And I realize that it’s a rare thing to be part of an audience like this. Maybe we all needed a little escape. Maybe, after all, that’s how we come together.