rogerandtom by Julien Schwab – review

Published in Edfringereview

After the decade-long lull, the play-within-a-play is clearly back in fashion. Often one finds plays framed within other plays for little apparent reason. Alan Bennett was ever-so-slightly guilty of this in his most recent play, Habit of Art. And one must always be wary of anything that bills itself as a metadrama; the structure is occasionally used as a way of disguising a play’s flaws. If a play is poorly performed or if its plot is unconvincing, one can all-too-easily claim that it was meant to be like that.

Happily, this cannot be said of Julien Schwab’s rogerandtom, the latest production of the fittingly named 4th Wall Productions. As talk of “the end of postmodernism” begins to gain currency in the literary pages of the Sunday supplements, Julien Schwab’s latest play takes theatre in new directions that the Michael Billingtons of the world probably didn’t know existed.

It would be a spoiler to reveal who the eponymous Roger and Tom are (though I’ll hint that the unorthodox orthography of “rogerandtom” is not without its significance), and any coherent description of the plot would ruin the fun of piecing it together during the performance. But despite a plot that resembles the infamously mind-boggling film Synecdoche, New York, where a director builds a vast superstructure of stages-within-stages to stage his existence, it all comes together. Lines and actions don’t make sense at the time, but they do soon enough, yielding some of the most satisfying “a-ha” moments since Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing. Nothing’s ever spelled out; that’s part of the fun. One needn’t worry about failing to understand; judging by the unceasing number of garrulous guffaws emanating from the audience, they were all clearly in on it.

In on it in more ways than this review will do justice. In time we end up just as important members of the cast as Corey Volovar’s show-stealingly stupid Penny, Bruce Wexler’s endearing everyman Roger, and Julien Schwab’s competent turn as the knowing Richard/William (the double billing will make sense once you’re there). The audience needn’t do anything; this isn’t “interactive” (God forbid), but our being there is at the play’s core.

One wonders what it all means. Is this the application of Heisenbergian principles to theatre – that a life is only lived when observed? Does fraternal or marital separation – Roger’s from his brother Tom, Richard’s from his wife – drive a person absolutely bonkers? Like Godot, Tom never turns up (or does he? Because he sort of does) – is life about standing by false hopes? Time and again William/Richard tries to prevent the truth from outing: are we happier deluded? All of these questions are gently mooted through a script of superb subtlety.

Not that the play is an intellectual burden. Lots of intelligent sight gags, often relying on a well-designed yet deliberately bare set, call to mind the Marx Brothers and make sure that even a child wouldn’t be left un-entertained, and the self-referential joshing is never an intellectual burden.

I wonder what they are doing at the Fringe though. On the back of a sell-out runs at professional venues in Los Angeles and New York, a London-side production is surely due. Julien Schwab may well be the next Luigi Pirandello, though like Pirandello, I fear he won’t be appreciated for a long time yet.