Thirty-two is a ripe age for a regional theater, but Arena Stage, which began its 32nd season last night with the Tom Stoppard farce "On the Razzle," isn't showing an arthritic bone.
It is, in fact, carrying on like a bouncing baby in a bassinet. The actors -- all 29 of them -- are carrying on. So are the sets. The mannequins in Madame Knorr's Fashion House and the fancy tables at the Imperial Gardens Cafe', not to mention the rows of neatly manicured bushes outside a bedroom window, all seem to have acquired independent minds and have taken to twirling and waltzing about, as if infected by the night's giddiness.
Bagpipes and violins, not exactly musical bedfellows, jostle each other in good-natured rivalry. Even the words that tumble out of the characters' mouths are kicking up their heels.
"I feel like the cake of the week," asserts a pompous greengrocer to the beau monde, who is decked out in the full regalia of the marching band he's about to lead through the streets of nearby Vienna. "Not the cake of the week, the sheik of Kuwait," corrects his chief assistant. "The clerk of the works?" volunteers the assistant's assistant. The phrase they're all trying to nail down, of course, is "the cock of the walk," but words just won't be nailed down that easily.
Because their boss will be out of the shop for a while -- and because vegetables are only so exciting, after all -- those two humble assistants resolve to pack away their aprons and go on a razzle, which is British argot, apparently, for painting the town red. As the elder of the two puts it, "I've got to acquire a past before it's too late."
What this pair of would-be swells acquires is a pocket full of mishaps, a stolen kiss or two and a whopping bill at Vienna's fanciest restaurant. But compared with minding the cauliflower, it's living on the edge.
If the premise sounds vaguely familiar to you, it should. At the root of this enterprise is a 19th-century Viennese farce by Johann Nestroy, "Einen Jux will er sich machen" ("He's Out for a Fling"). Thornton Wilder latched on to it twice, added Dolly Levi and turned it first into "The Merchant of Yonkers" and then "The Matchmaker." With songs and a staircase, "The Matchmaker" subsequently became "Hello, Dolly!"
Stoppard's adaptation attacks matters from a different angle entirely. The Royal Punster of the British theater, he has always relished the antic nature of words. To Nestroy's discombobulated tale of a night on the town, he has wedded the discombobulations of language itself. As in any self-respecting farce, one misstep leads to another, until the characters have worked themselves into a pretty fix. In Stoppard's play, words, misspoken or misheard, induce a similar chain reaction.
Consider this early-on exchange between Zangler (Mark Hammer), the stuffpot grocer, and Sonders (Kevin Donovan), the impetuous rake who's just thrown himself at Zangler's feet:
Zangler: Unhand my foot, sir.
Sonders: I love your niece.
Zangler: My knees, sir? Oh, my niece. Well, my niece and I are not pried apart so easily. Nor are hers. I hope I make my meaning clear.
Clear? Language in Stoppard's view is as treacherous as a noose. While his characters are running after (or away from) one another, climbing into cupboards and under tables, getting folded into Chinese screens or madly pedaling a three-wheeled delivery cart to adventure, the dialogue is engaged in an equally merry chase. Some of the participants have trouble keeping their clothes on. Stoppard's puns don't always honor the proprieties, either. The pratfalls are both physical and syntactical.
There was a time in its history, about a decade or so ago, when every farce Arena touched turned to lead. In recent seasons, however, some of its surest efforts ("The Man Who Came to Dinner," "Animal Crackers") have been of the door-slamming, suspender-snapping variety.
The turnabout is pretty much the work of one man, associate director Douglas Wager. His staging of "On the Razzle" is the same massive orchestration of people and props that Napoleon brought to the battlefield, or De Mille to the Bible. At the same time, Wager is astutely aware of those little nuggets of comedy tucked away in a corner. To note that his sense of invention flags only in the early patches of Act II is also to note that it is remarkably sustained everywhere else.
As the elder of the two clerks on a toot, Stanley Anderson is sweet innocence itself -- giggling at his unexpected audacity, wide-eyed at the powers of invention that come to him in a millinery shop, and proud as a cub scout who's just received a Good Misconduct Award. Pairing him off with Christina Moore, as the younger clerk, is a stroke of genius -- and not just because it revives the honorable tradition of breeches parts. Moore's pluck is in inverse ratio to her size, commonly described as pint. Having her assume the swagger, the bark and the hang-the-consequences bravado is inspired table-turning.
In his marching outfit, jingle bells attached to his boots, Mark Hammer's greengrocer cavorts like a hop-scotch champ, Prancer and quite possibly Vixen all rolled into one. Fighting his way through words, as if they were thick underbrush, he bellows to his servant, "Fetch me a half-witted cab, you handsome fool." Dither doesn't come much more colorful than this.
There's a large population of spiffy supporting creatures, drawn from the ranks of both the fooled and foolish. Chief among them: Charles Janasz, as the servant with the distinct appearance of Mephistopheles, if not the old goat's organizational powers; Halo Wines, the robust love interest, aflush with champagne and the turn of ever-turning events; and Dorothea Hammond, as an old maid who has inflated a terribly mundane encounter in her past into an epic romance worthy of Abelard and Heloise.
Meanwhile, the members of the technical team -- set designer Tony Straiges, costumer Marjorie Slaiman, and lighting designer Allen Lee Hughes -- are pulling out stops of their own. Excess is the password. It's as if they decided to push a great, gilded pastry cart back and forth under our noses.
"On the Razzle" amounts mainly to a very large serving of whipped cream, but the cream has certainly been whipped into high tufts and tottering turrets. That's pretty amazing, when you think about it, too. At 32, Arena is the granddaddy of regional theaters, laden with respect and honors. And here it is behaving like a loose filly!
Like a grilled moose? A frilly souse? A silly goose, maybe.
ON THE RAZZLE. By Tom Stoppard. Directed by Douglas C. Wager; sets, Tony Straiges; costumes, Marjorie Slaiman; lighting, Allen Hughes; with Stanley Anderson, Christina Moore, Kevin Donovan, Yeardley Smith, Mark Hammer, Franchelle Stewart Dorn, Charles Janasz, Barbara Sohmers, Halo Wines, Terrence Currier. In the Arena through Nov. 21.