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The Theater: Unstoppable Stoppard

3 minute read
T.E. Kalem



As a gunslinger of words, Tom Stoppard shoots to kill with laughter. Dirty Linen, with its insert piece New-Found-Land, is probably the most killingly funny play he has written, though it is also the slenderest. Stoppard’s works seem solidest when built on an earlier substructure. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead may be the sturdiest because it is built on Hamlet, and Travesties the wittiest since it springs from The Importance of Being Earnest.

In Dirty Linen, a topical headline scandal has caught Stoppard’s fancy. A campaign of sinnuendo has been launched in the British press implying that almost all the Members of Parliament are guilty of illicit sexual hanky-panky. A select committee of the House of Commons has been appointed to investigate the charges.

As the six M.P.s assemble, they appear to be pillars of rectitude. Their clerk is another matter. Maddie Gotobed (Cecilia Hart) has the body of a Botticelli. She is slow at speed writing but has fast friends in high places. Some are right here in the committee chamber. As Maddie’s blue scanties emerge from the M.P.s’ briefcases at inauspicious moments and whip through the air like naval pennants, it is clear that whatever the Prime Minister’s electoral problems may be, Maddie has carried the House.

Stoppard laces the proceedings with racy puns, malapropisms and bureaucratese. He scales the evening’s comic peak with the interpolated segment called New-Found-Land. Two Foreign Service officers enter the temporarily deserted committee room to discuss an American’s application for British naturalization. The elder (Humphrey Davis) is a doddering relict from World War I who embarks on an excruciatingly elongated, hilarious account of how he once secured a cherished £5 note from Lloyd George. The younger (Jacob Brooke) then launches on a bravura monologue about a train journey across the map of the U.S. that contains every old movie cliche, engrained national myth, sentimental hyperbole and travel-brochure bait ever known to a British tourist, or to many an American for that matter. As Brooke masterfully delivers it, this becomes a manic poetic aria of cumulative exhilaration.

Director Ed Berman moves the evening along with stopwatch precision. Because of his gift for parody and incessant wordplay, Stoppard’s own affinity may be not so much with Wilde and Coward as with S.J. Perelman, a writer whom he greatly admires.

Like Perelman, he is antic, satirical and civilized. At commencement time, college graduates are traditionally welcomed into “the fellowship of educated men.” Tom Stoppard uncondescendingly treats all playgoers as part of that fellowship. T.E. Kalem

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