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A CurtainUp Berkshires Review
On the Razzle
With British director David Jones to steer Michael McKean as Zangler and his fellow farceurs through the three-pronged plot of romantic entanglements and mistaken identities, the throttle has been turned on full force to emphasize the low in the high-low Stoppardian wit. Just think Are You Being Served, Fawlty Towers and Keeping Up Appearances and forget about flexing your intellectual muscles to keep up with the brainy Sir Stoppard.
Though indisputably our foremost wordsmith even when not on his more cerebral pedestal, Stoppard was not the first to see the possibilities for reworking Austrian satirist Johann Nestroy's Einen Jux Will Er Sich Machen (jux being the German counterpart to the Brits' use of razzle for fun). Thornton Wilder Americanized Nestroy's sturdy comic riff as the The Matchmaker, which was last seen on Williamstown's main stage in 1998. Jerry Herman musicalized it as Hello Dolly, a mega hit that immortalized Carol Channing. Stoppard's version sticks to the basic plot. However, as in his Rosencrantz& Guildenstern Are Dead (one of the best-ever productions ever at the Nikos Stage), the focus is on the minor character. The romance of Zangler, the small town retailer who never met a word he couldn't hilariously mangle, is pivotal to the plot, but the most intense spotlight is on his hungry for excitement clerks, Weinberl and Christopher.
Given Stoppard's choice of top bananas, much of any production's success depends on Zangler's landing his malaprops with well-timed precision and the way in which Weinberl and Christopher navigate their own mishap-laden razzle in Vienna after their boss precedes them there to wine and dine the woman he hopes to marry. Fortunately, McKean hits the mark as the twisty-tongued Zangler and Robert Stanton and John Lavalle handle his underlings' tomfoolery with aplomb. Stanton is convincingly plaintive as the Walter Mitty-like Weinberl with his desperate yearning to "acquire a past before it's too late." He becomes increasingly daring and droll as he and Chris embark on their own adventure (their pumpkin coach, a mock horse). Lavalle plays the eager young sidekick with engaging naivete.
Naturally, it take more than three characters to turn a day's mis-adventure into a real razzle-dazzle plot with three interwoven romances that can't end happily without first surviving identity confusion and a variety of other hi jinx. The following summary, adapted from my colleague Les Gutman's review of On the Razzle at the Jean Cocteau Repertory Company, will give you an idea of the many other major and minor players whose farcical skills are crucial for maintaining the Stoppardian silliness:
Mrs. Knorr (Cynthia Mace), the woman Zangler hopes to make his bride owns her own successful retail establishment which stocks the sought-after, Macbeth inspired Scottish plaid fashions on which much of the hide and seek games and misidentifications hinge. To impress this sophisticated lady, Zangler orders new clothes and hires Melchior (Asif Mandvi) as a personal assistant ("I woke up this morning feeling like a new man. So I got one."). He also arranges keep his niece, Marie (Amber Voiles) out of the arms of the debt-ridden Sonders (Corey Brill) by dispatching her to his sister-in-law Miss Blumenblatt (Brenda Wehle ) in Vienna. To insure that his store will be well looked after he makes head clerk Weinberl a partner and it is that mantle of responsibility that quickly goes to Weiberl's head and prompts him to persuade Chris, the former floor sweeper and now clerk, to go "on the razzle" to Vienna.
It's no time before the country bumpkins catch sight of Zangler and disguise themselves as mannequins in the window of, naturally, Mme. Knorr's House of Fashion. Circumstances propel the duo into a fancy restaurant in the company of Mme. Knorr and her customer, Frau Fischer (Margaret Colin), who has been introduced as Weinberl's new wife, albeit under the name of Fischer and unwilling to be Mrs. Anything until she's been sustained with some consomme. It is the same restaurant, of course, where hidden behind a carefully positioned screen, Zangler is waiting for Mme. Knorr. Several waiters, policemen, servants and a rump-pinching coachman will end up, in various states of dress and undress, in Freulein Blumenblatt's parlor -- including the eloping Sonders and Marie. Several other romantic entanglements manifest themselves which lead Christopher to at one point declare "I'm not the woman you think I am. . .I'm not even the woman you think is the woman you think I am." Eventually everything sorts itself out.
The Williamstown actors all throw themselves fully into the dizzy goings on. Asif Mandvi milks Melchior for every drop of humor. After a rather thankless role in Lady Windemere's Fan, Corey Brill makes much more of an impression as the suitor who considers himself debtless ("No outstanding debts -- run-of-the-mill debts I may have."). On the distaff side, Margaret Colin's Mrs. Fischer is not only stunning to look at but a marvelous foil for Weinberl.
What about the false moves mentioned at the beginning?
While director Jones has ramped up the humor with plenty of physical business, he's directed the restaurant scene in a too muted key. The two couples sitting at one side of the screen while Zangler is on the other should be more of a comic high point.
Jones has mercifully not made the between scene prop moving into distracting acting opportunities for WTF's acting interns. However, putting many of them right on stage, like so many movie extras, isn't exactly ideal either. It does fill the stage and makes for one of those splendid full-bodied curtain calls that Festival audiences love, but, ultimately, all those on stage extras actually take away from the comical confusion. In the production CurtainUp reviewed five years ago, the fact that the cast and various sets had to be squeezed into the confines of a handkerchief sized stage and the aisles actually heightened the comedy. Here the stage is full of people -- all beautifully attired by costumer Ilona Somogyi -- who make the stage look busy without adding any pertinent comic buzz.
Neil Patel has plenty of room to accommodate three complete and several partial sets. They're somewhat more intricate than those in the Lady Windemere and Top Girls production but at times seem rather flimsy. This is especially true of Madame Knorr's shop with its wobbly revolving door which failed to hide the performer waiting for an entrance cue. Perhaps if Patel, a usually adroit scenic designer, had created the various sets to be viewed all at once there would be more outrageous zanyness than neatly calibrated busyness.
The false moves notwithstanding, there's more to enjoy than complain about. And most of the two hours can be summed up as fun-tastic.
WTF'S 1998 production of Thornton Wilder's The Matchmaker The Jean Cocteau production of On the Razzle
WTF's Lady Windemere's Fan
WTF's Top Girls
Stoppard's Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead