In its current state–which probably isn’t its final state, given the fact that it’s a brand new play receiving its very first production–Roughing It seems too long. This isn’t because of its two-and-a-half-hour running time. Two a half hours hardly amounts to anything at all when (1) you’ve already sat through Les Miserables, and (2) those 150 minutes are used to tell a bunch of stories by Mark Twain. Something about Twain’s early stories, something about the whole easy front-porch atmosphere of them, actually makes you want them to last a while and then a while longer.
No, the drag comes in the telling. Not the whole telling, mind you (you’ll notice I’m being very namby-pamby here: I want you to know I like this show despite its flaws), but in certain important aspects of it. Roughing It is still just a little too rough to relax with.
Adapted by Goodman Theatre dramaturge Tom Creamer from Twain’s book about his frontier adventures, Roughing It builds a series of picaresque vignettes around young Sam Clemens’s attempt to strike it rich in Nevada. We follow along, sharing the ride west from Saint Louis; chasing gold through the mountains; getting hijacked first by robbers, and then by the law; waiting out a snowstorm at Mrs. Blaine’s way station in the middle of nowhere. Most of all, we meet people and hear stories: about tree climbing buffalo, famous funerals, mining-camp skulduggery, and the time Horace Greeley made the mistake of asking a certain stagecoach driver if he couldn’t perhaps go a little faster.
All of which naturally makes Creamer’s script very, very talky. But talkiness alone isn’t what’s wrong with Roughing It. If it were, then we’d be frantic with boredom when Melinda Moonahan’s amiably sloshed Mrs. Blaine rambles on and on through her shaggy-dog tale about Grampa and the old rain. Instead, we’re charmed. We could sit there with her in that snowbound saloon and let her lose her way for hours.
The real problem is that nobody here, not even Moonahan, knows yet how to spread that charm out across the whole length of the evening. To make it manifest through every story the ensemble tells.
Not that they don’t try. Ina Marlowe’s direction is full of playful–and occasionally literal–little sparks. Kevin Snow’s wood-and-canvas set is an object of beauty. Larry Hart’s turns as various grizzled creatures are a consistent pleasure: Mrs. Blaine’s story becomes a success in large part because it’s so much fun to watch one of Hart’s characters listen to it. And Sean Baldwin projects a lovely, flush-faced, dancerly enthusiasm as the young Sam Clemens.
Even so, there’s a plodding reticence about much of what goes on around Baldwin. This is most clearly and crucially apparent in N. Marion Polus’s performance as the older Twain, who shows up to narrate his younger self’s adventures and take on assorted roles. Try as he might, Polus can’t muster a halfway decent sense of irony or humor. What should be, well, a romp–an easy, funny stroll through Twain’s tall tales–becomes for him a dull and disastrously ingenuous trek across endless anecdotes without punch lines. It’s impossible to believe that Baldwin’s lithe Clemens could grow up to be Polus’s dense Twain. And it’s enervating to find oneself at the mercy of a narrator who can’t seem to find the jokes.
Clay Rouse and Joel Van Liew are similarly dull in their several roles; it’s especially annoying to see them fail to be dangerous or sinister as desperadoes. Jeffrey Swan Jones is just kind of vague as young Clemens’s pal, Bemis.
Roughing It has its problems as a script–especially insofar as it reflects Creamer’s fascination with rhetoric over action. Like I say, it’s talky. But it’s really much funnier, and plain better, than the talents of certain cast members will let it be. I didn’t really mind this Touchstone production of Creamer’s play, but I’ll be glad to see the next one all the same.