The Oxford Roof Climber's Rebellion
nytheatre.com review by Anthony C.E. Nelson
October 17, 2007
There are good plays and there are bad plays, but to my mind the most frustrating theatrical experience can be a play that can't decide what kind of show it's going to be. The Oxford Roof Climber's Rebellion, now playing at Urban Stages, has this kind of schizophrenia going on, as writer Stephen Massicotte tries to combine too many different distinct plays into one, so the evening never quite gels.
As the story begins, the poet and former soldier Robert Graves is hiding in a garden at All Souls College in Oxford, trying to avoid the festivities going on inside. He is joined by another man, a fellow soldier, who recognizes Graves and praises his poetry. The two men's bonding is interrupted by the entrance of Lord Curzon, former Viceroy of India and currently ending his tenure as Great Britain's Foreign Secretary. He knows that the second man is T.E. Lawrence, perhaps better known as Lawrence of Arabia. He wants Colonel Lawrence to speak at a memorial day that he is attempting to create to commemorate the dead of Word War I. When Lawrence refuses, Curzon turns to Captain Graves, who says he'll think about it.
Thus begins the intense friendship of Lawrence and Graves, who bond over their time as soldiers, and their shared discontent with Britain's present political climate. Lawrence inducts Graves into the childhood gang of mischief makers he shared with his two now deceased brothers, known as the Oxford Roof Climber's, the Benevolent Order Of. It is in the name of this group that the two men carry out increasingly reckless pranks on the college and its faculty, often spending nearly the entire night together.
Graves, meanwhile, must contend with his wife, a feisty feminist who keeps her own last name and helps run the family store. She is deeply concerned about the nature of his friendship with Lawrence, and the degree to which it keeps him away from his family and his own work. Their relationship is strained anyway, because Robert simply hasn't been the same man since returning from the war.
Unfortunately, these many threads never really connected for me. The main problem is that each scene takes on a slightly different quality of performance that makes it feel like it comes from a different play. There's the tragic love affair of two young men, misunderstood by societal convention. There's a play about a spitfire young feminist and her husband trying to make it in the difficult economic times of the '20s. There are two shell-shocked war veterans trying to put their lives back together again. There's a play about schoolyard pranks and increasingly dangerous hijinks. And finally, there's an international thriller. Unfortunately, whipping from scene to scene, I never felt like I was seeing the same characters in the same story.
What is most disappointing about this play is that the climactic scene, which reveals Lawrence to supposedly be an international mastermind, is tense, exciting, and interesting. It was also the first point in the show at which I believed Dylan Chalfy as Lawrence might have been capable of riding through the desert inspiring Arab tribes to revolution. Director Roger Danforth would have done well to try to foreshadow this a little bit more.
Unfortunately, throughout the rest of the play, Chalfy and Stafford Clark-Price as Graves give uneven performances, particularly in the early scenes when they come off rather like upper class twits. Because of this, the pranks don't seem tied to larger problems; the early section of the play seems to be about men who would rather play practical jokes than deal with their problems, which would be fine if we weren't then asked to believe it had all been part of a great plot. This is compounded by the fact that George Morfogen is so steady as Lord Curzon and has such a sensible presence that you find yourself rooting for him when you know the play doesn't want you to. "Yeah!", I found myself thinking, "Cave into the military establishment! They seem sensible!"
There's a piece of a fascinating play here in the climactic scene, and these actors are all capable of portraying compelling characters. Roman Tatarowicz deserves praise for a marvelous set which uses small video projections to vividly recreate the sense of different rooms with only minimal set changes. Unfortunately, in The Oxford Roof Climber's Rebellion, a number of very fine ingredients don't add up to a satisfactory meal.