EVERY GOOD BOY DESERVES FAVOUR - At the Kennedy Center Concert Hall through August 19.
We know what the good boys deserve. But what about those who are too clever by half?
Tom Stoppard and Andre Previn have put together an awfully clever conceit, "Every Good Boy Deserves Favour," which is back at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall where it had opened last summer. Stoppard wrote the words and Previn wrote the music, and the way they take turns showing off the results is as clever as the way platform stages have been fitted around a full orchestra.
Stoppard can produce puns as fast as Previn can musical notes. Everything in sight sets his mind off. The orchestra: "Brazen horns...cellos scraping the bottom of the barrell...the jew's harp has applied for a visa..." The insane asylum setting: "This place is a madhouse!" A mental patient: "He thinks he has an identity problem. I forget his name." Two characters who play the triangle, one who also takes geometry: "Everyone is equal to the triangle - that's the first axiom of Euclid."
Clever, clever, clever. But wait. He not only does comedy, but tragedy. The comic patient imagines he has an orchestra; there is also a tragic political prisoner in the same Soviet psychiatric hospital. The insane one uses letters for the musical mnemonic device to identify other dissidents.
But while there is no denying the cleverness, there are contrasts that make so much cleverness seem a mite forced and show-offy.
One is the acting, which is deep rather than clever. Rene Auberjonois' comedy, when he enacts the abstracted, pursed, nodding expression of one who is totally absorbed in listening to music, and Eli Wallach's tragedy, in a straight recital of prison torture, show what it means to go below a shining surface for brilliance.
Wallach's speech, the most moving spoken moment, is not Stoppard but a quotation from the real Soviet dissident, Victor Fainberg. The most stirring musical moment is not Previn, but from the 1812 Overture.
Be good, sweet boys, and let who will be clever.