The purloined plot

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.

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?

You might wonder how the author of the time-bending jigsaw puzzle Arcadia and a chatty attack on the philosophy of logical positivism, Jumpers, wound up mediating sexual shenanigans in a backstage comedy set on an ocean liner. Still, you switch off your brain during Rough Crossing at your own peril, because Stoppard is still Stoppard even in a floating bedroom farce. The script is full of his linguistic playfulness, the way he messes with meaning and, especially, landscapes miscommunications into great gaudy gardens. One of the funniest running gags is the attempt by Sandor to get a cognac from the tippling ship's waiter Dvornicheck (Chuck Huber), who can never seem to get the terminology of sea life right (he insists on calling the engine room "the basement") and who constantly, willfully misinterprets Sandor's words as an invitation to drink with the playwright.

Huber opened the play inciting storms of laughter from the audience, and I'd be concealing something if I didn't admit that ticketbuyers at the last preview kept right on laughing and even gave scattered applause to their favorite moments. But I lagged a little behind this enthusiasm; for one, Erin McGrann and Bill Jenkins as the stage co-stars and former lovers seemed to be acting in a different, altogether more florid show than the rest of the cast. McGrann seemed miscast to me from the get-go, a tad too matronly and no-nonsense in her character actress' look but seemingly attempting to compensate with exaggerated diva details. Jenkins, meanwhile, has the fading matinee-idol mug and booming, self-aware voice to make his preening version of Ivor Fish feel like an obvious choice. We've seen Jenkins tread this comic route so many times before, we can almost feel the grooves worn by his shoes under our own feet, and since he's also won us over with comic characterizations that contain much more variety, he's disappointing here.

Still, if you're in a generous mood to indulge a cast of very likable performers who for the most part have the rhythms of this material down pat, you'll likely forgive the comic excesses and enjoy Rough Crossing as heartily as the preview audience seemed to. You won't get to know the real Tom Stoppard from this nimble farce any more than you did from Shakespeare in Love, but the mask full of friendly mischief he turns out can make some damned entertaining small talk.

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jimmy Fowler

Latest Stories