Tom Stoppard is one of the theater's most literate playwrights (it is well known that he started his writing career as a journalist) and one who is happy to borrow the creations of predecessors. In the case of "Rough Crossing," which opened Friday at the Olney Theatre, Stoppard, an Englishman born a Czechoslovak, used a play by a Hungarian, Ferenc Molnar, to come up with a farce that tries both to adhere to the form and to parody it.
The joys and the problems with the production are -- almost -- equally balanced, with most of the credit side of the ledger owing to John Going's production and a cast that latches on to the play like terriers holding fast to a slipper. The situation is loonily Stoppardesque: Two playwrights, their glamorous leading lady, her handsome composer/lover and a vapid leading man set sail on an ocean liner to rehearse their next play, accompanied by a steward who has never been on a boat before.
As it is the 1920s, the play within the play is singularly nonsensical, so cluttered with orphans and lost emeralds and jewel thieves that no one, least of all the authors, can keep track of it. The songs are equally banal, cleverly composed by Andre Previn to conjure up echoes of "Tea for Two"-type ditties, with lyrics by Stoppard that sound like a stream of consciousness written after watching a dozen Fred Astaire movies in a row, some of them backward.
The authors, a sort of theatrical Tweedledum and Tweedledee, are desperately searching for an ending to their confection, and at the same time conspiring with their leading lady and their leading man to trick the composer into thinking the two actors were not making whoopee on the poop deck, as they indeed were, so that he will continue to write beautiful music for his lady love. The machinations furthering this deception fuel the action, aided by the omnipresent steward, who arrives propitiously at regular intervals to help sort out the plot.
The plot moves along at a furious pace indeed, complete with a storm at sea that has everyone, and the chandelier, reeling back and forth. But pretty soon one starts to wonder what the hidden agenda is, and by the middle of the second act one realizes there isn't one. With Stoppard, some parody on top of the parody is expected, a box inside the box that seemed to be the last. But this play is like one of those early airplanes that required a great deal of propeller-turning and noise to get off the ground and then couldn't really get anywhere.
So instead of satirizing farce by outfarcing the originals, as Michael Frayn did in "Noises Off," this one gets stuck becoming what it is trying to parody -- a lot of confusing silliness. There are in-jokes and witty lines, to be sure, indicative of a greater intelligence at work, but a lot of them fly by before you have a chance to get them. Ultimately one suspects this was an exercise for the author that did not quite come to fruition.
There is, for example, a running gag in which the playwright Turai is repeatedly thwarted in his efforts to drink a snifter of cognac. But the joke never reaches a punch line; it just sort of goes away, as though the author got as bored with it as the audience.
Whatever shortcomings are inherent in the script, they cannot be blamed on Tony Rizzoli, who plays the steward Dvornichek with manic delirium. Completely unversed in the ways of the sea (he refers to the ship's bridge as "the balcony" and complains that "when you're coming from the front, starboard is on your left!"), he doesn't get his sea legs until the boat is rocking seasickeningly from side to side; then, while everyone else is lurching hither and yon, he is as steady as a horizon. One can imagine this part being played by Groucho Marx. Rizzoli is continuously nimble and totally delightful.
Louis Turenne fits well into the double-breasted blazer of the playwright Turai, the more pretentious and sophisticated of the two. Brendan Burke is his more addled partner, and Joel Craig lathers on the smarm as the handsome leading man whose brains are all below the waist. Tim Loughrin is gorgeous and pained as Adam, the composer who suddenly couldn't talk without huge hesitations (allowing Stoppard to haul out that old saw when Adam is asked why he had to give up acting. "What's the problem?" he is asked; he replies -- pause, half a pause -- "Timing.") And Judith Roberts, although she could benefit by varying the tone of her intentionally phony voice, is energetically glamorous as the leading lady.
James Wolk somehow designed a set that can rock back and forth when the seas get rough, and Ric Thomas Rice's costumes are both appropriate and humorous.
Rough Crossing, by Tom Stoppard, adapted from Ferenc Molnar's "Play at the Castle," music by Andre Previn. Directed by John Going. Set, James Wolk; costumes, Ric Thomas Rice; lighting, Carl Gudenius; musical direction, R.L. Rowsey; props, Kathleen Wolfrey. With Brendan Burke, Joel Craig, Tim Loughrin, Tony Rizzoli, Judith Roberts and Louis Turenne. At the Olney Theatre through through Sept. 16.