"A play for actors and orchestra" is a curious description of a theatrical event with a curious title, the musical mnemonic for remembering the lines on the treble clef: "Every Good Boy Deserves Favour". But the description and title are at least consistent, since the play itself is curious, trapped somewhere between dull seriousness and humorous frivolity.
"EGBDF" is a recent collaboration of British playwright Tom Stoppard, best known for "Rosencranz and Guildenstern Are Dead" and "Dirty Linen," and Andre Previn, conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. The play opens with two cellmates in a Soviet mental hospital. Ivanov (John Wood) is a likable lunatic who conducts, rants at and plays with an imaginary orchestra which only be (and the audience) can hear. Alexander (Eli Wallach) is a political dissident, starving himself to death in protest of his imprisonment.
As might be expected, the play makes a strong statement against the Soviet's use of mental hospitals, mind controlling drugs and even torture in the suppression of free speech. But that's the problem: Wallach's parts is written like a "statement" on human rights. No matter how important the issue, we can demand of Stoppard some kind of dramatic embodiment of his ideas and not just the simple listing of Russian atrocities from a Kennedy Center soapbox.
Next to this earnestness, the liberal smattering of musical puns and old jokes seems not only curious but perhaps in questionable taste. For instance, the old comic routine:
IVANOV:" . . . Not to speak of the glocken-spiel."
ALEX: "The glockenspiel?"
IVANOV: "I asked you not to speak of it."
Or cracks about plates of tagliatelle Verdiand stuffed Puccini, coughing during diminuendos and being "fit as a fiddle."
Black comedy growing from the protrayal of a grimly ludicrous government system would be one thing, but most of the laughs here arise from frivolous plays on words. An exception is the opposition of the "sane" insanity of the prison doctor with the "insane" sanity of his patients. Such non-communication is both funny and indicative of an underlying twisted, "newspeak" logic.
In terms of content, EGBDF is a none-too-exciting call for individuals to keep faithful to simple truths, like one plus one equals two, not three, and that man has a right to speak his mind.
What saves it as a piece of theater is John Wood's funny madman and the "witty" performance of the entire Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra as a type of mischievous character in itself. Though existing only in Ivanov's mind, Previn and his musicians are always lurking about to defy their master's ravings - over-crescendo at a tense moment, bring in the "genius" Col. Rovinsky with all due pomp, and break into a rousing rendition of "The 1812 Overture" as Ivanov shouts lines from "War and Peace".
EGBDF - Kennedy Center Concert Hall through Sept. 2