Travesties Note

"Why do I have a sense of impending disaster?" asks the flustered grocer Zangler midway through the first act of Tom Stoppard's 1981 chestnut On the Razzle. His situation has certainly become steeply precarious. For one thing, an insolvent suitor has proposed to his highly "mortgageable" (i.e., marriageable) young niece. For another, he's about to leave his gourmet food business in the hands of his increasingly restless assistant, Weinberl, and wide-eyed young apprentice, Christopher. To complicate matters further, the outfit he's had made especially for a Viennese assignation with his wealthy fiancée makes it virtually impossible for him to sit down. "One false move and we could have a farce on our hands," the torturously attired merchant observes, in the pitch-perfect understatement that has made Stoppard the most razzling practitioner of the screwball form since Joe Orton.

Adapted from Austrian playwright Johann Nestroy's paradoxically obscure yet indirectly popular Einen Jux will er sich machen (the source of Thorton Wilder's The Matchmaker and hence the film Hello Dolly!), On the Razzle hews to the general outline of the original, while transforming the dialogue into Stoppard's signature hyperactive style. Though nearly every speech harbors a verbal gag (ranging from the silliest malapropisms to the most dazzling puns), the fevered wordplay never obstructs the classic simplicity and sense of farcical inexorability. If anything, the compulsive linguistic clowning serves to intensify the wholesale unmasking of social reality, which the critic Eric Bentley identifies as the genre's essential heretical business. In the giddily reversible world of Zangler's high-class comestibles, there isn't a phrase or position that can't be turned either inside out or upside down.

Having just been promoted beyond their wildest expectations, Weinberl and Christopher assure Zangler that his business will be well taken care of while he's wining and dining his intended. Joy quickly gives way to melancholy, however, as the men's sudden rise exposes the emptiness of the corporate game. "The servant is the slave of his master and the master is slave of his business," notes a sober Weinberl, who's already grown accustomed to his new status as partner in the firm. To compensate themselves, the two take off to Vienna for a no-holds-barred razzle of a night, the memory of which they hope will console them through their graying "grand grocer" years. That is, if they can somehow avoid running into their boss, who's bouncing back and forth between his insouciant niece and his soon-to-be bride. Fortunately, a Scottish fad has hit Austria, making quick getaways in tartan cloaks not only an option for the fugitive clerks but a fashionable convenience.

In 'On the Razzle,' Jason Crowl, left, serves his master, Harris Berlinsky, in classic style.
photo: Gerry Goodstein
In 'On the Razzle,' Jason Crowl, left, serves his master, Harris Berlinsky, in classic style.

Details

'On the Razzle'
By Tom Stoppard
Jean Cocteau Repertory
330 Bowery
677-0060

'. . . Worry, Baby'
By Marc Spitz
NADA
167 Ludlow Street
420-1466

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Lacking the resources to bring to life the shift from country to city (a transition nearly as dramatic as that from Kansas to Oz), the Jean Cocteau production takes a minimalist approach. Stage directions are read to locate the setting, which is otherwise indicated by a cartoonish backdrop etched in black magic marker. While the action proceeds fairly smoothly, the feeling is cramped and dull when it should be expansive and glittery. The scene at the Imperial Gardens Café where all the farcical components converge can only be vaguely sketched— the size and awkwardness of the stage make simple choreography, never mind that of a large cast hiding behind Chinese screens, clumsy at best.

Given their logistical constraints, the actors do a credible job with the material— if not finding the gravity behind the gaiety, at least occasionally hinting at darker motivations. Director Scott Shattuck may take a mild and overly sympathetic approach, but his theatrical world is thankfully devoid of airheads. With red-faced élan, Harris Berlinsky's Zangler captures the emotional desperation fueling the aerobically challenging high jinks. Also notable are Craig Smith and Tim Deak as the retailing duo determined, for one uncharacteristically reckless night, to let someone else worry about the tab.

There's certainly nothing classic about playwright Marc Spitz's farce ...Worry, Baby— a kind of modern day La Ronde in which mindless violence substitutes for casual sex. As gratuitous as the blood and gore undeniably are, the satirical vision is so consistently outrageous that it's hard to seem morally inflamed when one can hardly stop laughing at the perverse (and all too pervasive) cultural absurdity.

Donna (Sarah Gifford) and Dexter (Andersen Gabrych) are without a doubt two of the more hateful characters you're likely to encounter. He's a publicist and closet homosexual, while she's a fashion victim with a nasty chip on her shoulder. On-again/off-again lovers, the two duke it out in the streets, wishing flesh-eating bacteria on each other and claiming never to have been sexually satisfied. In the midst of their public row, they hear a gunshot— and both, of course, assume they've been the target. Instead, Larippo (Jonathan Lisecki), a young bloody street kid toting a pistol, demands that the couple help him onto the park bench. He's been shot by his drug-dealing competition, and if the lovebirds don't shut their traps and do what he says, they're likely to be next.

This chance meeting between seemingly antithetical New York City worlds sets off a string of murders that begins when Dexter, trying to get medical attention for Larippo, steals another dealer's gun in the middle of a fight and blows him away in the process. Intoxicated by the rush, he wipes out a few more innocent and not-so-innocent bystanders, including one mentally ill woman who not so crazily calls him a faggot.

Meanwhile, Donna, who's been nursing her foul-mouthed kidnapper, practically kills the poor guy with her sexual advances. "More slang!" she demands, while straddling him, not caring that he turns out to be a spoiled white kid from Riverdale who's studiously taught himself to talk like a homeboy. Like all of Spitz's characters, Larippo cobbles together an identity from popular music and MTV. The result is an epidemic of the most vicious "Highway to Hell" behavior punctuated by the occasional mawkish "I Believe I Can Fly" sentimentality.

While the playwright has some trouble maintaining control of his black-comic farce (there's some silly business involving Dexter's hermaphrodite ex­chemistry teacher, and a lame showdown ending), he's clearly attempting to inject contemporary thrills into the form. Avoiding any kind of explicit moralizing or didacticism, he hasn't yet arrived at an alternative dramatic style coherent enough to focus his perceptions and purpose— but he's definitely on his way. His twentysomething actors, particularly the wittily brittle Gifford, and director Carlo Vogel are certainly moving him in the right direction— unmasking their own generational reality, mindlessly gruesome as it may be.

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