This Tom Stoppard Play May Not Be An Important Work, But It's Dizzying Fun.
TOM STOPPARD'S ON The Razzle is a non-stop romp of witty wordplay and physical comedy. But as delightful as the play itself is, directo rush his young charges' dialogue as if it were important to go home early. With a pace more like the Tokyo Bullet Train than the Bath-to-London local, the audience is left at the station catching only a fraction of Stoppard's work as it rushes by at breakneck speed. Rather than dazzled, we're left frazzled.
Stoppard, of course, is currently a hot property in Hollywood thanks to his recent Oscar for the literally literate comedy Shakespeare In Love, co-written with Marc Norman. Stoppard has a playful appreciation of the English language that can only come from one who first learned it as a foreigner. Born in Czechoslovakia, he spent early years in Singapore and India before his family settled in England (he refers to himself as "a bad Czech writer"). He learned what works in theatre the old-fashioned way: succumbing to that particular dark side of the Force, he became a theatre critic. He reportedly attended 132 productions during one seven-month period. Since the 1967 success of his brilliant Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, effectively combining the Bard and the absurd, he's been hailed as one of England's best writers.
In addition to stage plays (Jumpers; Travesties), he's written for radio, TV and film, with screen credits for Billy Bathgate, Empire of the Sun and The Russia House, plus adapting and directing the movie version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
The pedigree of On The Razzle is long. Stoppard's 1981 adaptation is based on an 1842 German play by Johann Nestroy, Einen Jux Will Er Sich Machen (He'll Have Himself A Good Time), itself an adaptation of John Oxenford's 1835 one-act play, A Day Well Spent. Einen Jux also spawned Thorton Wilder's The Merchant of Yonkers, later revived as The Matchmaker, which begat the successful musical Hello, Dolly! The movie Ferris Bueller's Day Off is a more recent variation on the theme.
As Stoppard describes it, Razzle follows "the tale of two country mice escaping to town for a day of illicit freedom, adventure, mishap and narrow escapes." Set in 1873, store owner Zangler (Chip Boyd) heads for a day trip to Vienna to woo his fiancée and keep his niece, Marie (Melissa WolfKlain), from pre-nuptial naughtiness with her not-yet-approved intended, Sonders (Christopher Olander). Seizing the opportunity for a rare holiday, Zangler's hired help, Wienberl and Christopher (Mickey Burdick and Jay Haddad) close up shop behind him and head for the city themselves. Unbeknownst to Weinberl and Christopher, Zangler has also hired dead-pan servant Melchior (Jay C. Cotner) in anticipation of promoting his long-time employees. During the course of this madcap day, there are mistaken identities, romances and hilarious chases. Early on, Zangler warns, "One false move and we could have a farce on our hands!" Of course, a farce it is and so everything works out in the end.
Influenced by Groucho Marx and Monty Python, Stoppard's dizzying use of words includes dreadful puns, and malapropisms plus double entendres galore. Wacky Zangler in particular rushes through phrases two and three times before getting it right. (He warns his niece, "He'll alter you before the dessert, er, he'll desert you before the altar."). Alas, the delivery is so fast that rather than laughing, the audience spends much of the play trying to catch up. And then once the audience caught on and started laughing (midway through the first act), those fast-and-furious punchlines became even more difficult to catch. The physical gags, increasingly used as the play progresses, are equally fast paced, but naturally more easily grasped.
The 20-member student cast does the UA program proud. Burdick, a junior, and his sidekick Haddad, a graduating senior, are a compelling Mutt-and-Jeff team of gumption and naiveté. Boyd as Zangler, overly expansive at first and under considerable makeup, eventually grows on you. Cotner gives a great performance as the supercilious new employee. And there are scene stealers throughout: Ryan White as the flourishing Hupfer and later as a waiter, makes a lot out of a little. Erika Rominger, with her Bride of Frankenstein wig as Miss Blumenblatt, also overacts to good effect. The snickering aroused by a coachman with a derriere obsession, played enthusiastically, crop and all, by Michael Sean Nickerson, is rewarded with big laughs when he meets maid Lisette, who can't get enough of him. And as Lisette, Jennifer Fisk-Wilken (an acting/directing junior of considerable talent, who recently starred in Invisible Theatre's The Batting Cage) gets some of the broadest laughs with her vaudevillian determination to return to her paramour in the off-stage kitchen.
These students in turn are well-served by the faculty-designed costumes and set. The cartoonish, pseudo-period outfits by Assistant Professor of Costume Design Nanalee Raphael are colorful and comic. The meticulous sets by Scenery Instructor Clare P. Rowe are evocative and ingenious.
On The Razzle is well worth seeing, especially if you enjoyed the shrewd use of language in Shakespeare In Love. Stoppard admits this isn't an important play, but he's satisfied if it's immensely entertaining. If the cast will ease the frenetic verbal pace in subsequent performances, audiences may better appreciate its intricacies. But just in case, get a seat as close to the stage as possible so you don't miss any of this phonetically fueled frolic.
On The Razzle continues through April 25 at the UA Marroney Theatre, south end of the pedestrian underpass on Speedway east of Park Avenue. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, April 15 through 17, and on April 23 and 24. Matinees play at 1:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday through April 25. Tickets are $16 general, $14 for senior citizens and $10 for students. For information and reservations, call the UA Fine Arts Box Office, 621-1162.
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