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Mike Nadajewski as Weinberl and Kristi Frank as Christopher in On the Razzle at the Shaw Festival.Emily Cooper

  • Title: On the Razzle
  • Written by: Tom Stoppard
  • Director: Craig Hall
  • Actors: Mike Nadajewski, Kristi Frank, Ric Reid
  • Company: Shaw Festival
  • Venue: Royal George Theatre
  • City: Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
  • Year: To Oct. 8, 2023

On the Razzle, now on stage at the Shaw Festival through October, is British playwright Tom Stoppard at his most dazzling and his least deep.

Prepare to be amazed, overwhelmed or slightly stunned by the non-stop outpouring of puns and malapropisms, mistaken entendres and double identities that he jammed into this 1981 free-wheeling adaptation of a light 19th-century Viennese comedy.

There are laughs to be had in director Craig Hall’s production of the play, too. But these are less frequent than clever moments that provoke the thought: “Oh, I see what he did there.”

The intermittent guffaws mainly come from Stoppard’s cruder jokes – and particularly long-time company member Patrick Galligan’s inflated portrayal of a perpetually inflamed coachman.

Best known for original plays both sharp- and quick-witted such as Rosencrantz and Guildernstern are Dead and Arcadia (seen in 2013 at the Shaw Festival), Stoppard has had a less significant sideline in his career adapting lesser-known European classics by the likes of Ferenc Molnár, Arthur Schnitzler and Luigi Pirandello.

On the Razzle is based on a 1842 play called Einen Jux will er sich machen by Johann Nestroy, who was, according to Stoppard’s biographer Hermione Lee, a “hugely popular Viennese theatrical phenomenon.” Nestroy’s work is not well known in English – except for, oddly, this city-mouse/country-mouse comedy, which was also adapted by the American playwright Thornton Wilder into The Matchmaker in 1954.

In Stoppard’s take, the action begins at a provisions store somewhere in the suburbs of Vienna. Zangler (Ric Reid), the proprietor, is dressing up in jangly military garb, preparing to head to town in order to propose marriage to a wealthy widow.

Hewing further to the tropes of 19th-century theatre, Zangler has a ward, Marie (Lindsay Wu), who he has been trying to keep away from an avid suitor, Sonders (Drew Plummer), whom he has deemed unsuitable. That pair have vamoosed to Vienna, too.

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From the left: Élodie Gillett as Frau Fischer, Mike Nadajewski as Weinberl, Kristi Frank as Christopher and Claire Jullien as Madame Knorr in On the Razzle.Emily Cooper

Before departing to pursue both them and his widow, Zangler promises Weinberl (Mike Nadajewski), his long-time chief sales assistant, and Christopher (Kristi Frank), an apprentice, that they will get promotions upon his return.

Rather than imbuing them with a greater sense of responsibility for his business as intended, however, this inspires Zangler’s two employees to close up shop and have a wild day in the city – a.k.a. go “on the razzle” – so they have that to look back on once they are saddled with weightier roles.

In Vienna, of course, Weinberl and Christopher must dodge Herr Zangler and his new servant Melchior (Jonathan Tan) who, conveniently, does not yet know what they look like – by ducking into shops or restaurants or high-walled courtyards with conveniently and comedically placed ladders.

To give you a taste of Stoppard’s verbal verve in the play, one of the running gags is that Zangler is a phrase mangler. In the opening scene, he refers to himself as “the cake of the week” and it’s up to Weinberl and Christopher to try to decode that.

“The clerk of the works?” wonders Chistopher.

“The Sheikh of Kuwait?” offers Weinberl.

Eventually, they land on “the cock of the walk.”

I had read that passage before seeing On the Razzle and enjoyed the wordplay – but, on stage, found such cleverness harder to catch, especially as each joke jogged quickly into the next.

There’s not much opportunity for the characters to take a breath here – or for the audience to register what’s at stake for any of them. The Matchmaker, by contrast, is much funnier because it is also heartfelt – or, at least, that is my memory of the play from director Chris Abraham’s now legendary production at the Stratford Festival in 2013.

On the Razzle struck me more as like a Joe Orton farce minus the subversiveness – or Boeing-Boeing for brainiacs.

That’s not to say that Hall’s production isn’t amusing. The director begins the show with a bit of whimsical choreography that visually introduces the characters and the action is impeccably paced there on in. (The chief virtue of Christina Poddubiuk’s design is how swiftly it shifts from one locale to the next.)

Frank makes Christopher, on or near the bottom rung of this society, the most affecting of the characters; she is the vulnerable charmer of the double act she forms with a more closed-off Nadajewski as the two juggle pretzels or disguise themselves in tartan as part of a recurring bit about cross-cultural influence related to the popularity of Verdi’s Macbeth.

I should note that the press performance I attended saw three of the female roles in Vienna played by understudies – a cascading effect of a single sickness. Perhaps more laughs will land when everyone is in their proper place.

Regardless, though this be but second-tier Stoppard, I was happy to be able to check it off my list as one of his many long-time fans, particularly as a contrast to the 85-year-old’s sober and serious and, indeed, deep depiction of where Viennese society went in his current Broadway hit, Leopoldstadt.

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