Norovirus outbreaks notwithstanding, the weather this past month has probably made even the most cruise-averse among us think wistfully of breaking out of our ice-coated reality to pursue romance on the high seas. But as Tom Stoppard's shipboard farce "Rough Crossing" makes eminently clear, there are plenty of storms among the swell set.
Adapted from Hungarian farceur Ferenc Molnar's "The Play at the Castle," Stoppard's 1984 piece is barely within hailing distance of "The Coast of Utopia" or any of his other epic cerebral works. But let's face it, if you want serious business, all you have to do is pick up the paper or look out at the frozen tundra of Chicago. First Folio Theatre's unofficial mission for years has been to lighten up the winter blues with sparkling comedies from Noel Coward and the Jeeves stories of P.G. Wodehouse.
Stoppard's dizzy-but-sly tale of a becalmed musical comedy on a 1930s trans-Atlantic ocean liner fits right in with that lineage, and director Alison C. Vesely's sharply timed staging boasts a first-rate cast of clowns.
Chief among them is Kevin McKillip's Dvornicek, a steward who doesn't understand nautical lingo but who can translate any one-liner into an invitation to down a glass of cognac. He is at the service of the writing team of Sandor Turai (David Rice) and Alex Gal (Rene Ruelas), who are crafting a show set to open in New York, starring Russian diva Natasha Navratilova (Gail Rastorfer) and her dimwitted ex-lover, Ivor Fish (Christian Gray).
The chief complication in a plot suitably chockablock with pitfalls is that the show's young prodigy of a composer, Adam Adam (Alex Weisman), Natasha's current conquest, doubts her fidelity, causing an idiosyncratic speech impediment whereby he can only answer questions several moments after they've been posed. Things get worse when he overhears Ivor and Natasha in a tender moment. Adam threatens to abandon both ship and show — a situation the cunning Turai tries to resolve by creating a show-within-the-show-within-the-show.
Don't try to understand the plotline of that embedded contrivance, even though Ivor and Natasha rehearse it in the second act. I'm not sure Stoppard does, frankly. And it doesn't matter — though Molnar's piece was adapted by Wodehouse even earlier in a version called "The Play's the Thing," here the performances are the point.
And boy howdy, are they a hoot. McKillip, whose rubber-legged physique and rubbery-faced physiognomy are never less than reliable, outshines his earlier First Folio incarnations as a good-natured idiot who saves the day despite himself. Weisman's cherubic features can contort into poisonous rage as he looks upon Gray's self-regarding twit, and Rastorfer's glamorous leading lady (decked out in Rachel Lambert's lovely period duds) nails Natasha's wounded pride in the face of her own confused lust and the indignities demanded by Rice's overbearing writer. And Ruelas, who has been a solid utility player in many past First Folio shows, finally gets a chance to let his comic chops shine as the always-noshing Alex. (After returning from a false-alarm abandon-ship drill, Ruelas' feckless showman gets one of the biggest laughs of the night by hissing, "The women and children on this ship do not give an inch!")
Christopher Kriz's original music shows off Stoppard's so-dumb-they're-smart lyrics to great advantage, and Angela Weber Miller's foldout set (changed over by the uniformed "ship's crew" in a lovely number choreographed by Vesely and headed by McKillip) almost becomes its own character.
There were some moments opening night that felt as if they could use a few more turns of the wheel to find a truer course through the waves of wordplay, but for the most part, this "Rough Crossing" provides a welcome comedic voyage.
When: Through March 2
Where: First Folio Theatre at Mayslake Peabody Estate, 31st Street and Illinois Highway 83, Oak Brook
Running time: 2 hours
Tickets: $30-$37 at 630-986-8067 and firstfolio.orgCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun