‘Rough’ a smooth ride

All aboard for a seaborne comedy: It involves a playful play-within-a-play on a transatlantic ocean liner in the jazzy ’30s — with tap-dancing to boot.

Tom Stoppard’s “Rough Crossing,” a light comedy adapted from a play by Ferenc Molnár and directed by Mark Rucker DRA ’92, is the Yale Repertory Theatre’s third production of the season. It debuted at the University Theatre on Nov. 28.

The play tells the story of two playwrights, Turai and Gal, who are struggling to complete a musical before their voyage on the ocean liner SS Italian Castle from London to New York — their rough crossing — is over. And it is not easy: Their musical, set to debut on Broadway, does not quite have an ending yet, nor in fact does it have a proper beginning or middle. The fact that the composer is in love with the lead actress only complicates matters and adds to the hilarity.

Yale Rep Artistic Director and School of Drama Dean James Bundy DRA ’95 said he loved the play because of its zany wisdom about both artists and affairs of the heart. They selected it for this season’s Rep program with the aim of creating a source of relief and humor at troubling times, he said.

“We wanted to bring light and music and comedy to the darkest season of the year, and we wanted to combine the verbal dexterity of Tom Stoppard with the clowning of a gifted troupe of contemporary actors,” Bundy wrote in an e-mail.

The parallel between the play’s setting and the current economic situation further emphasizes the idea of comic relief at difficult times. “Rough Crossing” takes place in the years of the Great Depression — an era frequently alluded to these days.

Rucker, who directed “Twelfth Night” and “Landscape of the Body” at the Yale Rep and won a special jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival for his film “Die, Mommie, Die!,” said the play was inspired by the screwball Hollywood comedies of the ’30s.

“During the Great Depression people felt the need to escape and watch beautiful comedies,” he said. “This play was a similar escape for me and hopefully will also be one — and a well-timed one — for audiences.”

Although the double entendres, puns and puzzles typical of Stoppard’s language are present in “Rough Crossing,” Rucker warned that since this play is a light comedy, its themes are more simplistic and not as serious compared to other Stoppard plays.

In fact, when “Rough Crossing” first opened at the National Theatre in London in 1984, it had what a New York Times review described as “the shelf life of banana cream pie.” It took the play many years to cross the ocean and make its debut in the United States.

One feature that sets this production apart is the emphasis on singing and dancing. The characters in the play rehearse scenes from the Broadway musical they are preparing and there is even tap-dancing on stage, which required the actors to take dance lessons for five weeks with choreographer Michele Lynch.

Bundy said many productions of the play cut much of the music and dancing. The Rep production, in contrast, is infused with music, singing and tap dancing.

“ ‘Rough Crossing’ is almost never done this way, even though it’s how the play was originally conceived,” he said. “The play has a scale and exuberance that seem particularly appropriate when times are hard.”

“Rough Crossing” will run at the University Theatre until Dec. 20.

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