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One of my favorite summer pastimes is playing “Where’s Stoppard.” Since Rick Lombardo left the New Repertory Theatre and Whistler in the Dark Theatre went dark, there’s not much appetite in Boston for Tom Stoppard’s delectable works, except for the ubiquitous “The Real Thing.”
But come the summer you’re likely to find at least one of the British playwright’s works elsewhere in the state — one of his classics at the Williamstown Theatre Festival or one of his comedic translations at Shakespeare & Company. There’s a spirit of comedic adventure and mischief in his plays, so who better to pick up the Stoppardian mantle this summer than the plucky Harbor Stage Company.
Harbor Stage, true to its name, occupies the same building as the original Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater, now on Route 6. When W.H.A.T. fired Jeff Zinn, many of the actors associated with the old company started Harbor Stage as the owner of the building decided to lease the space to them rather than W.H.A.T.
There have been unfortunate inner conflicts since, but that’s enough history for today. Suffice it to say that the harbor stage remains in excellent hands, as witnessed by its delightful production of “Artist Descending a Staircase” (through Aug. 9).
Remarkable might be more like it as four actors recreate Stoppard’s 1973 BBC radio play that’s part art theory and part heartbreaking love story, centering on the role of randomness in contemporary life. And it's a very witty comedy. Until it isn't.
The quartet actually goes beyond the radio play in that these four portray their characters in flashback as well as in real time — the original called for seven actors. They’re easy on the eyes — recreating the sound of horse’s hooves by clopping coconut shells together, for example — as well as on the ears. Their upper-class English diction is impeccable.
The three men are artists, or wannabes. Their conflicts arise over how to approach art in an absurd universe. Is nonsense art the only way? Or taping random sounds? Or maintaining the verities of speaking beauty and truth to ugliness and lies. (The title is based on Marcel Duchamp's "Nude Descending a Staircase.")
Sound intimidating? Not at all, as one of the Brits might say. You do have to pay attention, as the one-act goes back and forth in time, and there’s the façade of a mystery to pay attention to. The title refers to the death of Donner, one of the artists who falls down the stairs and dies, recorded on a tape loop which convinces the remaining two that the other one killed Donner.
But Stoppard is one of those playwrights who, even if you don’t get everything, gives you enough to keep you intrigued, and confident enough that things will be clear by play’s end. The wild card is Sophie, a woman who meets the artists in their younger days and falls in love at first sight with one of them. The problem is that first sight is last sight as she goes blind and when she meets them again relies on their remembrance of an old painting to tell her whom she’s in love with.
Although Stoppard is talking mostly about visual and conceptual art in the piece, it’s something that he has wrestled with in the theater. His early plays look back to Shaw and Wilde while embracing the absurdism of Pirandello and Beckett. Witness “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.”
Or, to a lesser extent, this play, in which the aforementioned randomness assumes tragic dimensions. Still, it plays more like comedy than tragedy. Here’s Martello, one of the artists trying to make a serious point but can’t:
[My brain] is so attuned to the ironical tone it has become ironical in repose; I have to whip sincerity out of it as one whips responses from a mule … if only I could turn it off! No wonder I have achieved nothing with my life! … no wonder I have achieved nothing but mental acrobatics. Nothing! … Not even among the nihilists.
For all the philosophical jousting, Stoppard and the actors make them full-blooded characters. Each of the men — Jonathan Fielding, Robin Bloodworth and Jason Lambert — is touching in his own way, though it’s Brenda Withers as Sophie who really touches the heart as the woman who knows more about life than the pontificators do, even though severely handicapped — yes, that’s the right word here — by her blindness. (Fielding and Withers co-directed.)
Stoppard is often criticized for not being emotional enough, which has never registered as a real concern to me. It’s certainly not true of “Artist Descending a Staircase,” particularly when these four actors inhabit his characters.