The purloined plot

Stage West's Rough Crossing is a pleasant journey by a plundering playwright

As the late, legendary English critic Kenneth Tynan noted in his 1977 profile of the playwright Tom Stoppard, who was only that year enjoying the first decade of his theatrical success after his early smash hit Rosencranz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Stoppard is something of a rare fauna in the kingdom of literary artists -- a writer who doesn't like to make enemies. Stoppard, of course, was seen beaming on the Academy Awards stage, holding up the trophy he'd scored as co-author of the screenplay for Shakespeare in Love. The film's galloping geniality was pure Stoppard: the sense that he couldn't push you to hate even his most vainglorious characters too much because, well, Stoppard doesn't want anyone to take anything too personally.

Indeed, he has often attacked conventions rather than individuals, but never without edging into the crosshairs himself. One of the best observations from his play Artist Descending a Staircase, a cheerful murder mystery that is also a suspicious glance across the whole of 20th-century art, is: "Skill without imagination is craftsmanship and gives us many useful objects such as wickerwork baskets. Imagination without skill gives us modern art." It's the cannibalization of previous eras and schools, the scavenging quality of much visual art and literature over the last dozen or so decades that amuses Stoppard, and as a frequent adapter and translator of other playwrights' works, the writer gets a good giggle from his own grocery-aisle thievery. In the aforementioned Tynan piece, Stoppard baldly says of his own career : "I can't invent plots. I've formed the habit of hanging my plays on other people's plots. I'm trying to kick the habit."

He never has, of course, but his reputation (not to mention financial success) is hardly the worse for wear. He even robs the imaginations of people he's invented who have in turn plundered real-life dramatists, as the play-within-a-play form of everything from The Real Inspector Hound (a riff on Agatha Christie) to The Real Thing (a poke at Harold Pinter). Once again, there's that sense that Stoppard is the fellow who gooses the other club members in the parlor, who in turn not only forgive him for pointing out their foibles but encourage it because it strengthens their sense of membership in a community of clowns. His ability to spin language and meaning around like kaleidoscopic designs suggests words are our corrupters, and not vice versa.

From left, R. Bruce Elliott, Ashley Wood, and Mark Waltz are stage artists struggling to finish a play on an ocean liner in Stoppard's genial confection.
Buddy Myers
From left, R. Bruce Elliott, Ashley Wood, and Mark Waltz are stage artists struggling to finish a play on an ocean liner in Stoppard's genial confection.

Fort Worth's Stage West launches a second voyage (they staged this same script a decade ago) of what may be Tom Stoppard's frothiest, most unmitigated entertainment, the 1984 seafaring theatrical farce Rough Crossing. It is an Anglification of Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnar's Play at the Castle, which had, a few decades before, also been adapted by the ultimate scribe of Anglo mismanners, P.G. Wodehouse.

In some ways, Rough Crossing is the quintessence of Stoppard -- a translation, a play within a play (specifically, a play rehearsal), a look at how difficult it is to separate the evolution of the thing being created from the personal journey of the creator, and above all, a shameless pursuer of the ticketbuyer's good sentiments. Yet it's also his least philosophical piece of stage. This show is craft, not art, in part because it checks off each successive conflict on the instruction list of theater collaboration. The driving engine of the script is the attempts by a pair of longtime co-authors to finish a play in just four days on board a cruise ship en route from England to America. The two men are captive with a playwright's most venerable artistic tormentor -- actors, in this case the leading lady and man of the musical production called The Cruise of the Dodo (the last word is Stoppard's typo intended to be Dido).

The struggle between actor and author is a classic theatrical catalyst for inspiration and disaster, as the performers try to jockey the piece back in the direction of their most surface emotions (often, an actor prefers a character to do it this way over the written version because it requires less digging).

In Rough Crossing, a romantic disaster dictates that the playwrights cater to the performers' feelings -- incorporate the dialogue from a clandestine moment of passion between the lead actors into the vastly different context that will surround the characters they'll be playing onstage. Under the direction of Stage West artistic director Jim Covault, the cast strikes broad poses in rapid-fire time, lending the pleasant but not altogether memorable sensation of flipping through a book of New Yorker cartoons.

Stoppard is clearly making fun of his own professed incompetence with original plots in Rough Crossing, because the two authors, Sandor Turai (Mark Waltz) and Alex Gal (R. Bruce Elliott), are willing to use plot turns wherever they can be found. The problem is, they've come upon the ship late with the show's unstable composer Adam (Ashley Wood), who is the lover of leading lady Natasha (Erin McGrann). Unfortunately, married and aging leading man Ivor Fish (Bill Jenkins), a former amour of the youthful Natasha, is trying to entice her back to his bed. The attempted seduction is witnessed by Sandor, Alex, and a distraught Adam. Sandor and Alex need Adam's composition skills and want to entice this neurotic former leading man back to the stage. How can they convince him that Ivor and Natasha's little moonlit ship encounter wasn't what it seemed?

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