Well, let’s see. There’s a dimwitted Lothario, a jack-of-all-trades cabin steward, two collaborating playwrights, a madly in love French composer, and an Eastern European diva – all the elements needed for a comedy, in this case playwright Tom Stoppard’s “Rough Crossing.” Making its appearance at the American Players’ outdoor Hill Theatre, the comedy is set aboard the transatlantic luxury liner, the SS Italian Castle, bound for New York (elegantly and cleverly designed by Scott Adam Davis).
Stoppard’s play is based on Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnar’s farce “Jatek a Kastelyban” (“Play at the Castle”), and follows two 20-year collaborating playwrights, Sandor Turai and Alex Gal. They are rehearsing and revising their new musical, “The Cruise of the Dodo” (an unfortunate typo as it’s supposed to be Dido”).
Turai and Gal also are trying to salvage the relationship between their leading actress and diva, Natasha Navratilova, and their French composer, Adam Adam. It’s, of course, complicated – by the interference of “middle-aged clod” and matinee idol Ivor Fish, the leading man, and Adam’s impairment. Adam, once an actor, is speech-impaired because of his terrifying mother who is in and out of prison (assault, battery, public nuisances in front of the “Mona Lisa”). Ivor, who claims to have discovered Natasha is married, is dreadfully afraid of Paloma, his wife. (“Remember your wife, Piranha?”)
Stoppard’s play is dialogue driven, but highly entertaining, with clever puns and sight gags galore. That’s quite evident in Act Two, when during an over-the-top rehearsal for the Turai-Gal play with no ending, a storm, rough seas, and a lifeboat drill interrupt. Naturally, like all good comedies, the play ends with a kiss, a musical swell and a happy conclusion thanks to the ship’s captain. Or as sound designer Andrew Hansen says, “an MGM ending.”
Andre Previn wrote three songs for the play: “This Could Be the One,” the first act closing “Where Do We Go from Here?” and “You Never Heard It From Me.” With musical direction by Bob Willoughby, this ensemble can sing; they are resplendent in Rachel Anne Healy’s gorgeous 1930s style costumes: tuxes, smoking jackets, gowns and gloves.
In his 21st APT production, director William Brown presents a character-strong ensemble in a well-paced and quite enjoyable production.
As for that ensemble – they’re all stellar.
James Ridge is an exquisite Turai; he’s stern-faced, almost malevolent, energetic, a straight-laced bulldog and solver of all problems except for his elusive cognac. His unrelenting dressing-down of Natasha and Ivor in Act 2 is impressive, and his delivery of one-liners is subtle.
David Daniel is the cabin steward Dvornichek (aka Murphy), and is perhaps the true comedic relief if not recurring joke; he knows nothing about nautical terms, but is always cordial. Surprisingly, he more than once saves the day. Daniel and Ridge have an understated chemistry and complement each other. (“When do you sleep?” … “In the winter, sir.”)
Kelsey Brennan as Natasha is a great screamer, and plays a perfect diva. She knows elegance and comedic timing; both she and Marcus Truschinski’s Ivor have some great, extravagant scenes, but avoid “hamminess.” And Truschinski plays the egotistical, pretentious, dimwitted Ivor to perfection.
Jamal James is a tall, sophisticated Gal. He’s constantly eating, and despite “an economy of expression,” James has a wonderful voice and is a graceful, fluid dancer and singer whom I wish we saw more of.
Josh Krause is the endearing French composer, Adam. His accent is spot on, his agony with his speech impediment is true, and he has such an innocent face.
While viewing “Rough Crossing,” I was reminded of all those Noel Coward and 1920s musicals. Did Stoppard intend it as a spoof, a departure from “Arcadia,” “Travesties,” “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead”? As writer Scott Palmer reminds us, Stoppard is known for his “inventive use of language, and believes in the supremacy of words.”
All I know is that Stoppard loves the theater, and under Brown’s solid direction and this cast’s perpetual comedic sense, American Players has a hit with “Rough Crossing.”
• Regina Belt-Daniels has been onstage or backstage in theater since the first grade. Currently serving on the boards of RCLPC Theater and It’s Showtime, she is directing the September opening comedy “I Hate Hamlet” at the Cosman Theater in Huntley. Although no transatlantic luxury liners are involved, she promises a see-worthy production with all hands on deck.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: “Rough Crossing” by American Players Theatre
WHERE: APT’s outdoor Hill Theatre at Spring Green, Wisconsin
WHEN: Through Aug. 7
COST: $56 to $91; also available to stream
INFORMATION: americanplayers.org, 608-588-2361
Source: The Daily Chronicle