First Folio navigates wacky waters in 'Rough Crossing'

You know First Folio Theatre's theatrical ship is on course when the crew includes Kevin McKillip.

The presence of the lissome, loose-limbed actor as an unseasoned cabin steward helps ensure smooth sailing for the company's deliciously madcap revival of “Rough Crossing,” a 1984 farce by Tom Stoppard.

Adapted from “The Play at the Castle” by 19th-century playwright Ferenc Molnar, this play-within-a-play is an affectionate sendup of 1930s melodramas. Its convoluted plot referencing illicit affairs, jewel heists and white slavery matters little. Its requisite wackiness, however, matters a great deal. In fact, wackiness sells this comedy-with-music, which pairs Stoppard's lyrics with jaunty, jazzy tunes courtesy of Jeff Award-winning composer and sound designer Christopher Kriz.

The action unfolds on an ocean liner (a stylish, expertly done set conceived by Angela Weber Miller) bound for New York from Southampton, England. On board are longtime playwriting partners Sandor Turai (David Rice) and Alex Gal (Rene Ruelas), who are having trouble coming up with an ending for their latest musical comedy “The Cruise of the Dodo.”

With the opening looming, the pair enlist actor-turned-composer Adam Ádám (Alex Weisman), whose recently acquired, delayed-response speech impediment has forced him off the stage. Now, Adam composes show tunes for his new girlfriend Natasha (Gail Rastorfer, every bit the 1930s stage siren), a Hungarian actress who's starring in the Broadway-bound musical opposite her former lover, fading matinee idol Ivor Fish (Christian Gray).

Problems arise when Adam, already a bit jealous, overhears a tete-a-tete between Ivor and Natasha and quits the show, prompting the calculating Sandor to come up with a plan to keep Adam on board (literally) and keep the show afloat.

Steering this ship is director Alison C. Vesely, whose funny, fast, physical production comes with some terrific special effects courtesy of set designer Miller and technical director Brian Claggett. So effective was the storm Miller and Claggett conjured, I almost felt a little seasick myself.

As it turns out, the character who best navigates the storm-tossed seas is the landlubbing, cognac-swilling steward Dvornicek, who has an uncanny knack for exposition and whose sea legs become steadier as the seas grow rougher. It's the latest in a series of endearing physical, comedic turns from the versatile McKillip, who also helms a rather clever set change involving a quartet of dancing stewards.

The play's sharpest satirical comments fall to Rice, whose demanding Sandor compares actors to rabid dogs and petulant children. Rice's cool restraint and slight superiority nicely balances the outsize humor supplied by the ever-likable Weisman, terrific as the tongue-tied Adam. There's a touch of pathos to Rastorfer's aging star, who finds solace with a younger adoring man, and to Gray's blow-dried former leading man on the downside of his career. But it's the deft timing and droll delivery from Ruelas, as the celery-chomping, second banana Alex, whose self-serving response to an abandon ship order makes a splash in an altogether shipshape show.

Kevin McKillip, center, plays an unsteady ship’s steward in First Folio Theatre’s “Rough Crossing,” featuring David Rice, left, and Rene Ruelas as writers trying to finish a play before their ocean liner sails into New York. Courtesy of Melissa Carlson

"Rough Crossing"

★ ★ ★ ½

<b>Location:</b> Mayslake Peabody Estate, 1717 W. 31st St., Oak Brook, (630) 986-8067, <a href=""></a>

<b>Showtimes:</b> 8 p.m. Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday through March 2; also 3 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 20 and 27, and 4 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 22 and March 1

<b>Running time:</b> About two hours, with intermission

<b>Tickets:</b> $26-$37

<b>Parking:</b> Free lot adjacent to the estate

<b>Rating:</b> For teens and older

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