For those who caught "On the Razzle" at Arena Stage three years ago, the two-hour television version of the Tom Stoppard farce, taped by the National Theatre of Great Britain, will seem a relatively tepid affair. Although the script has been pruned here and there, it's essentially the same play that will air tonight at 9 (Channel 26 and Maryland Public TV stations) as part of the Great Performances series. But what has happened to the glorious sense of discombobulation that made the show such a treat at Arena?
The fun, you may recall, comes on two fronts. First, there are the grand entanglements of the plot: One day around the middle of the 19th century, two provincial grocery clerks boldly decide to shuck their responsibilities (and their aprons) and trot off to Vienna to have themselves a merry old time. As one of them puts it, "I've got to acquire a past before it's too late." Meanwhile, their stuffy boss has also set off for Vienna, where he plans to announce his nuptials to a lovely hat maker. Before long, their paths cross and employes are breathlessly dodging employer in such fancy locales as Madame Knorr's Fashion House and the Imperial Gardens Cafe.
Sound familiar? It should. Stoppard took the plot from a 19th-century Viennese comedy, "He's Out for a Fling," which also served as the inspiration for Thornton Wilder's "The Matchmaker," better known as the basis of the long-run musical "Hello, Dolly!" But in the process, Stoppard, the royal punster of the British theater, enriched an antic story with his own brand of linguistic high jinks.
"I feel like the cake of the week," trumpets the pompous merchant, who has just donned the full regalia of the marching band he's about to lead through the streets of Vienna. "Not the cake of the week, the sheik of Kuwait," volunteers his chief assistant. "The clerk of the works?" suggests the assistant's assistant. And so it goes, until they manage to nail down the proper phrase, which is "the cock of the walk." You see, while Stoppard's characters are running their mad course through Vienna, language is leading them through an equally dizzy maze. The combined mix-ups can get quite heady.
Arena's production paid keen attention to both parts of the equation -- the tripped-up tongues and the careening bodies. Indeed, it was hard to tell where one left off and the other began. The television version, however, is primarily about misbehaving words. As you might expect of a British company, the dialogue is crisply articulated and immaculately phrased. But the players, headed by Felicity Kendal, Dinsdale Landen and Alfred Lynch, seem to be acting from the head up. Stoppard's wit gets all the attention. Largely overlooked is the knockabout physical comedy in a play that, after all, has characters nipping at one another's heels, diving under restaurant tables, folding themselves up in a Chinese screen and assuming one hastily improvised disguise after another.
Director Peter Wood is forever giving us close-ups of the characters misspeaking their minds. But he rarely pulls back and shows us the larger picture. And in farce, which you might describe as the theater's way of illustrating the principle of chain reaction, the larger picture is the one that counts. With the gathering velocity of a runaway train (okay, a runaway hansom cab), "On the Razzle" shows us a tiny society flying apart. Wood seems to be more interested in the trajectory of the individual pieces. The performances end up looking awfully unconnected.
I liked the sad befuddlement in the face of Lynch, as the middle-aged assistant who wants, for once in his life, to live on the edge. Ciaran Madden, as the Viennese couturier, is as pretty as a whipped-cream pastry. But Landen gives a terribly dry, not to say ponderous, reading as the merchant, who proudly proclaims his grocery shop "the heat of my campfire," when he really means "the hub of my empire."
Then there is actress Kendal, who in the honorable tradition of "breeches parts" plays the young male apprentice. I don't know which is stranger -- the gravelly voice she's assumed for the occasion or her haircut and makeup. The voice makes her sound a lot like the devil in "The Exorcist"; the haircut and makeup give her a startling resemblance to Pinocchio.