Imagine polishing off several bottles of bubbly with your ditzy old Aunt. That’s the kind of delightfully dizzy night you’re in for with Constellation Theatre Company‘s madcap production of Tom Stoppard’s On the Razzle. There are more groaning puns and twisted tongues here than I can possibly quote. The completely ridiculous wordplay seems endless, gorging itself on a verbal box of chocolates until the farce bursts at the seams. You’ll feel like a goose stuffed with foie gras. Yes, I meant to mix those metaphors. That’s the beauty of the evening.
To lovers of Broadway musicals, the plot will be familiar. It’s Hello, Dolly! without Barbra Streisand, I mean, without the matchmaker. Stoppard based his play on the Viennese comedy that Thornton Wilder used to write the play Jerry Hermann used to write the musical – deep breath – it’s this kind of whirligig origin that director Nick Olcott calls “an analgram of stunning originality and blatant theft.” It’s no surprise this production is set on a revolving stage. The usual brilliant Stoppard wordplay is itself a swirling waltz, with malapropisms building on themselves in an excess of tomfoolery.
You could just sum it up as a play about two guys trying to pick up girls by pretending to be high rollers. Somehow, in a town gone mad for tartan, with the help of a wooden horse named Lightning, they become made men.
Hapless shop clerks Weinberl (Ashley Ivey) and Christopher (Matthew McGloin) can’t seem to catch a break in the employ of the bombastic Zangler (Michael Glenn). Their dreams hardly expand beyond the close confines of his provincial shop, paying homage to the merchant class and longing for the day when they can rise high enough to look down on someone else. Until one day they go “on the razzle,” hunting for experience in the big city.
Weinberl is a bit of a philosopher, and Ivey gives him a rather adorable pedantic air, whereas Christopher’s journey from earnest apprentice to a man-of-the-world is perfectly screwball in the hands of McGloin. Glenn’s Zangler, all Napoleonic in too-tight trousers and jangling spurs, skewers the puffed-up self-importance of the class Stoppard seems to be cruelly lampooning (though it’s hard to tell where the playwright’s sympathy lies). But don’t look too hard for a deeper theme – despite a chilling reference to “Aryan” culture late in the play, spotlighting we are in 1910’s Vienna after all, it’s mostly a frolic as we follow the two clerks on their adventure.
They aren’t the only ones longing for a better life away from Zangler’s shop – wily heartthrob Sonders (the always hilarious Joe Brack) is trying to steal away proper ward Marie (Jennifer Crooks), though he may end up with a very different bride than he bargained for… Hijinks ensue, of course, to the trippy background of sound designer Brendon Vierra’s almost maniacally cheerful marches and waltzes.
It’s probably theatrical heresy to point out that Stoppard’s first act takes a while to get going (how many false starts can we really handle before funny turns into antsy?), but I think it’s true, and I wish there had been a few cuts to keep the action at under two hours. However, Olcott keeps things at as brisk a pace as any could, and it’s a small quibble for a night that really will have you laughing almost constantly. The puns are excruciating, and the actors are game for anything.
Constellation’s ensemble does this style of over-the-top farce very well, and after four years as a company they are really starting to own it (though the men are more striking in their total commitment to physical and vocal gymnastics than the women). Ivey and McGloin in particular are so committed that I almost believed the cantankerous wooden horse was alive, and joined in their zany cheers as it appeared just in time to save the day.
Constellation Theatre Company‘s production of On the Razzle, thru March 6 at the Source Theatre, located at 1835 14th Street NW, Washington, DC 20001. Closest Metro stop: U Street/Cardozo (Yellow/Green lines). For more information call 202-204-7741.