.Hilarious Crossing

Stoppard's absurdist farce loaded with laughs

British playwright Tom Stoppard’s 1984 play-within-a-play comedy, Rough Crossing, launches the Jewel Theatre’s ultimate season with madcap flourish.

Hellbent on creating a theatrical success (a career revival perhaps?) playwrights Sandor Turai (J. Paul Boehmer) and Alex Gal (Christopher Reber) cross the Atlantic en route to New York on the SS Italian Castle, somewhere in the upscale 1930s, thanks to impeccable costuming by B. Modern and stunning set design by Tom Buderwitz.

The two colleagues plan to finish their destined-for-Broadway musical, “The Cruise of the Dodo” (and it gets funnier), accompanied by a handsome young composer Adam Adam (Tommy Beck), who is engaged to the leading lady. The glitch comes when the playwrights (and the composer) accidentally overhear leading lady Natasha Navratilova (Marcia Pizzo,) and fellow actor Ivor Fish ( David Ledingham) in flagrante delicto. (Pizzo poured into a shimmering silver evening gown is sheer glitz.)

Panic ensues as the writers brainstorm a scheme to keep their heartbroken composer from abandoning the whole project. This gathering of gifted Equity actors is reason enough to sit back, take in the Stoppardian absurdity and laugh our heads off. But there’s one more reason to put down your iPhone and get tickets for this play. And that reason is Danny Scheie.

Imagine a precision ‘30s screwball comedy in which a central character—John Cleese filtered through Burns & Allen—unleashes linguistic distortions as well as elegant solutions with the random genius of a blackjack dealer.

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The voice! Quicksilver with a splash of mince. Add the speed and the nimbleness of a Charlie Chaplin. There you have Scheie’s impossibly adroit cabin steward, Dvornichek.

Always there when you need something, and always mangling the delivery of that something. Scheie’s split-second timing—shared by the entire cast—is legendary. And it’s on full display in this sprightly vehicle, even with all of its predictable jokes.

To watch Scheie’s can-do steward spinning around, retrieving and dispensing snifters of cognac (mostly to himself) is to ease back into a simpler, pre-digital era where humor was based on clever sight gags rather than irony.

In the savant steward Dvornichek, Scheie polishes one more role that flat out belongs to him. A role that must be dispatched with unerring word perfect bravura, a straight face, and a gleam in the eye.

Scheie is in good company—bravo tutti—with special praise for Boehmer, the second coming of 30s star William Powell, as the elegant woebegone Turai. Listening for Stoppard’s insider playwriting jokes is part of the treat, and the entire madcap comedy moves impeccably thanks to the smart staging by director Art Manke.

Already 40 years old, filled with Mussolini jokes and white slave trade i.e. sex trafficking allusions that are groan-making as well as un-PC, Rough Crossing is not life-changing theater.

Neither profound nor poignant, it is a piece of entertainment that lays no claim to gravity or grace. Instead it offers a steady stream of sight gags, wit, and farcical dialogue. Plus the pleasure of watching six actors exchange tongue-twisting lines, navigate improbable situations, and sing/dance their way through three brisk Andre Previn tunes. 

It felt good to laugh as loudly as all of us did through opening night’s performance. The ending, led again by Scheie, was so over-the-top absurdist that it overcame the play’s few moments of lull.

Rough Crossing is a vivacious reminder of just how much the Jewel Theatre has meant to this town.

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Rough Crossing, written by Tom Stoppard, directed and choreographed by Art Manke, produced by the Jewel Theatre Company.

Playing at the Colligan Theater through November 5. www.jeweltheatre.net/.

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