- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 23, 2003

That “Rough Crossing” opened at all is a miracle. Hurricane Isabel whomped parts of Alexandria, and MetroStage managed to rehearse and paint sets throughout the storm, enduring power outages and other setbacks.

Although the production was not quite ready on Sunday’s opening night, the company gets high marks for persevering, and I suspect that the show will get more solid as time goes on.

Putting on a Tom Stoppard play under any condition is a challenge. Mr. Stoppard is known for his whip-smart wordplay and cascading wit. Actors have to rattle off his dialogue with ease and finesse — they have to appear as though they talk like this every day, otherwise, their words sound self-consciously eggheaded and forced.

To make things even trickier, Mr. Stoppard has set his play-within-a-play (which is in itself a loose adaptation of Ferenc Molnar’s “Play at the Castle,” perhaps best known as an adaptation by P.G. Wodehouse titled, “The Play’s the Thing”) aboard a cruise ship in the 1920s — a time of Noel Coward-ly dialogue, Cole Porter-esque songs, sleekness and style.



The plot is as jumbled as a junk drawer, but is at heart a spoof about playwrights and the work (or, perhaps, the nonwork) they do. Turai (Michael Russotto) and Gal (Jack Vernon) are writers of high-colored melodramas that combine such disparate elements as heiresses, emerald earrings worn by the Empress Josephine, the white slave trade, manufacturing barons, orphaned babies, and international jewel thieves.

They are on a cruise ship toiling away at their latest Broadway-bound musical, which could use an ending, and also a beginning and middle. Their re-write efforts keep getting muddled up by the show’s cast — the lovely Natasha (Nicole Mestres McDonnell), Ivor (Carl Randolph), who is trying to rekindle a love affair with his co-star, the brooding young composer Adam (Steven Tipton), who is engaged to Natasha, and a cabin steward named Dvornichek (Ian Gould) on his first ocean voyage.

Director Nancy Robillard must contend with the double-gloss of the Roaring ‘20s and Mr. Stoppard’s flashing wit. On the surface, “Rough Crossing” looks swell-egant, to borrow a phrase from Mr. Porter. Joseph B. Musumeci’s set is a salmon-and-cream-colored ocean liner, all curved metal and art deco-inspired deck chairs (the set swings around for Act II to reveal a chic mauve and black ballroom). And Michele Reisch’s costumes, particularly the men’s haberdashery, are as snappily tailored as anything you’d see on Fred Astaire.

Piano music of the era completes the ‘20s ambience. Michael Russotto, playing the dapper and hilariously affected playwright Turai, has the sort of sophisticated mania needed to pull off Mr. Stoppard’s dialogue. He tosses off the non sequiturs and tongue-twisters with an arch, throwaway nonchalance.

Miss McDonnell also possesses a period glamour — as well as a lovely singing voice — that suits the soignee diva Natasha. She also has the speed and control needed to keep Mr. Stoppard’s wordplay from sounding too artificial and brittle.

As the hapless steward, Ian Gould deserves special mention for ably executing a great save. When the breakfast cart he’s pushing popped a wheel, Mr. Gould stuck a lid under the cart’s leg without missing a beat. Once he gets his timing down, Mr. Gould should be even better in the role.

The rest of the cast was, unfortunately, not up to snuff, missing cues and treading on each other’s lines. Everyone seemed a bit on edge, understandably so, but the lack of glibness and smoothness make the title of “Rough Crossing” all too apt for now. With time, and calmed nerves, the production might start sparkling like Mr. Stoppard’s repartee.

**1/2

WHAT: “Rough Crossing” by Tom Stoppard

WHERE: MetroStage, 1201 North Royal St., Alexandria

WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursdays to Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays through Oct. 26.

TICKETS: $20 to $35

PHONE: 703/548-9044

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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