Looking for Peacocks In the Magic of Farce

There’s a true story that Tom Stoppard liked to tell about a man he knew who kept peacocks. Not to worry! This is a completely comprehensible Stoppardian story. No particular knowledge of peacocks, moral philosophy or the existence-or nonexistence-of God is required, thank God.

One bright morning the man was shaving, and he looked out the bathroom window and saw that one of his treasured peacocks had escaped onto the road. So he dashed out and managed to catch it. For Mr. Stoppard, the story goes to the very nature of farce, because its central point isn’t about the man and the peacock: It’s about you. Suppose you happen to be driving by the scene and, in a surreal, mad flash, you see this frantic, barefoot man in his jammies whose face is covered in shaving foam-and he’s carrying a peacock in his arms! Now that’s interesting. That’s fun!

Farce is thus in the eye of the beholder. For example, Alec Baldwin is currently giving a very funny performance on Broadway as Max Bialystock in The Producers . Unfortunately, he’s playing Oscar Jaffe in Twentieth Century at the American Airlines Theatre. In no sense, however, did my perception reduce my pleasure in Mr. Baldwin’s spirited interpretation. To the contrary, my delight was only increased.

Mr. Baldwin, strutting in his smoking jacket and monogrammed slippers, is on the money. The Oscar Jaffe of the 1932 screwball comedy by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur is as much the lovable, bankrupt, shyster theater producer as Max Bialystock. “Ibsen,” Oscar cries at one desperate point. “Find out if he’s alive!”

Howard Hawks’ 1933 film version of Twentieth Century with John Barrymore and Carole Lombard invented the term “screwball comedy.” It was the first to find, as it were, the frantic man and the runaway peacock in the machine.

Think of the innocent character whose running joke in the play and the film is to stick warnings on train windows and the backs of people that read “Repent!” The partnership of Barrymore and Lombard was irresistible. But Mr. Baldwin and Anne Heche aren’t quite a match made in heaven. You cannot imagine them having an offstage life together.

Where Mr. Baldwin seems game for anything-and appears to be enjoying himself-Ms. Heche’s portrait of Oscar’s protégée and the loopy love of his life, Lily Garland (née Mildred Plotka), is too calculated for me. The star actress playing the diva actress looks silkily glamorous. She plays to her angular strengths, tending to pose in Barrymore-like profile. But she lacks the warmth of Lombard. Her notion of wild farce is to come up with oddly spastic karate kicks accompanied by squeals. Ms. Heche isn’t a natural farceur .

It’s conceivable I might be imposing a sense of farce on Alec Baldwin, however. The other night, I happened to meet him at Elaine’s when a mutual friend wanted to introduce us. But for some farcical reason, Mr. Baldwin got the impression that I’m the owner of The Observer . What’s more, I went along with it. He courteously asked about The Observer staff, and I told him how very proud I am of everyone ! Well, it was easier. I didn’t want to see the usual pained expression come over the face of an actor when I say I’m a drama critic. It’s like announcing you’re a debt collector: It casts a pall. Besides, it’s good to own a newspaper once in a while. You get treated with deference .

Misunderstood meetings, like unexpected partnerships, make good farce. Mr. Stoppard’s dotty philosopher in Jumpers is at his dithering best in partnership with his bow and arrow. (He characteristically misfires it, mistakenly shooting his pet hare, whose partner is a tortoise.) Alas, the revival of the 1976 Sly Fox , Larry Gelbart’s farcical take on greed via Ben Jonson’s Volpone , is a lowbrow misfire. “I knew I’d outlive him, and I’ve got hemorrhoids to prove it!” “They don’t call me the hangin’ judge just because I’m well-built.” Ta-da! But burlesque was never subtle , and the problem isn’t in the script.

It’s in the playing. Richard Dreyfus’ swindling faux invalid, Foxwell J. Sly, in partnership with Eric Stoltz’s ineffectual Simon Able is no partnership at all. Mr. Dreyfus isn’t a born farceur , either. (He acts one instead.) But I’m afraid Mr. Stoltz is at sea. He ought to be the devil’s disciple, not the amiable, negative fellow he is here, and so Mr. Dreyfus is forced to go it alone. There’s a lot of frenzied, loud declaiming-no surprise peacocks in sight.

But I’m glad to report there’s more than one in Theatre for a New Audience’s very welcome staging at the Lucille Lortel downtown of Engaged by W.S. Gilbert (of Gilbert and Sullivan, if you please). Gilbert is forever known as Gilbert and . His worldwide fame in partnership with the composer Sullivan overshadowed his playwriting. His 1877 satire Engaged is a curiosity piece that was ahead of its time. The discovery is how astonishingly, farcically ludicrous it really is.

Any Victorian comedy will surprise us with the throwaway line, “Marriage is a very risky thing. It’s like an endless lawsuit.” Engaged explodes the righteous greed of Victorian womanhood, of all purest things. It anticipated-and influenced-Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest . But to my own amazement, in its modest, expertly performed way, we can see how it actually anticipated the Theatre of the Absurd, as well as my favorite screwball of all, Preston Sturges, and even the farcical lunacies of Monty Python.

Serious claims, to be sure. But who but Sturges (or Gilbert and ) would invent a Scotsman named Major McGillicuddy? And who but Monty Python would have him entering out of the blue in full regalia with pistols on a hillock? Meanwhile, for complex reasons, a young opportunist known as Cheviot, of the Cheviot Hills, has become engaged to two or three women simultaneously. “Where is the villain?” the betrayed, and the betrothed, McGillicuddy cries. “I’ll swear he is concealed somewhere. Search every tree, every bush, every geranium …. “

Engaged gives eternal British silliness a good name. It also reminds us how charming farce can be. Doug Hughes and his small, fun ensemble have done it proud, as well as the memory of the fine director, Gerald Gutierrez, to whom the production is lovingly dedicated.

All farce is played fast and loud (or extremely fast and loud). Slamming doors always help, along with vicars and politicians caught with their pants down. David Leavaux has happily broken one of the conventions with his direction of the National Theatre’s revival of Jumpers at the Brooks Atkinson. Mr. Stoppard’s 1972 entertainment-the only farce about moral philosophy and logical positivism ever likely to be written-whizzes dizzyingly along. But not necessarily loudly, except for occasional cries of “Wolves!” or “Rape!”

The entire perplexed town, it seems, is asking what-or the more testy what -is Jumpers about? And since no one appears able to explain it, why, I wonder, is everyone acclaiming it? Or is that too logical?

We have reached the ultimate farce. I’ve never known a Broadway audience so giddy before the curtain went up. And no sooner was it up than the knowing laughter began: We understand the convoluted joys of logical positivism! (the laughter seemed to say). Wittgenstein-now he’s funny!

Mr. Stoppard has been known to flatter audiences into believing they’re a little more intellectual than they are. He can be too clever by three-quarters. Or too clever-clever-clever. But Jumpers isn’t impossible to understand, if you relax. On the one hand, it’s about a hapless professor, George, who’s having difficulty writing a lecture about God. On the other, it’s about acrobats who are a group of philosophers who like acrobatics (or acrobats who like philosophy). It’s also about George’s marriage to Dotty, his former student and sometime cabaret star, who’s having a nervous breakdown. And it’s about a murder mystery, a whodunit that never reveals whodunit.

That’s an awful lot-enough to be going on with, anyway. But to my own dismay, this is the first big Stoppard comedy that I haven’t found particularly amusing. Was it because I felt I understood it? Now there’s a thought! If you grasp the complex meaning of Jumpers , it isn’t funny!

But I don’t think it’s possible to marry farce to a play of philosophical ideas. For myself, it’s a heart transplant that doesn’t take. They both have their convolutions and absurdities, but a Philosophy 101 lecture does not a farce make. It makes a showy pretext for one. Jumpers could scarcely be better performed by Simon Russell Beale as George Moore-the other George Moore-with the enchanting Essie Davis as Dotty. And yet I felt the overcrowded evening amounted to a set-up.

The one authentic, purely farcical element within the piece is the punning detective investigating the murder mystery. Detective Bones is Mr. Stoppard’s loving tribute to the comic archetype and sex comedies created by Joe Orton, greatest of all modern farceurs .

But when the absentminded George started to shave himself for no reason, my suspicions were alerted. A man with foam on his face thus emerged in the next scene-not with a peacock, but with a bow and arrow and a tortoise. It might have been a tortoise and a hare. It doesn’t matter. In the end, it’s just a device-an effect for its own sake, like those philosophical acrobats, or the naked, plumdumptious Dotty, or the whodunit that never reveals whodunit.

Tom Stoppard dunnit.