Volume 20, Number 43 | THE NEWSPAPER OF LOWER MANHATTAN - MARCH 7 -- 13, 2008


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Jason McDowell-Green and Alex Mickiewicz in Tom Stoppard’s “Every Good Boy Deserves Favour”

Treble clef in a Soviet asylum

By Jerry Tallmer

Every good boy deserves to see “Every Good Boy Deserves Favour” at least once. So does every good girl. And now they can, for the first time in New York City since Lincoln Center, 1979.

The place, Town Hall, West 43rd Street. The time, 8 p.m., Friday, March 14. One single performance only, to the tinkle—or the clang?—of a triangle. Echoing perhaps the clang-clack of Warsaw Pact tanks muscling into Prague in August 1968.

The “u” in favour is the British way, the Stoppard way, “EGBDF” being “a Play for Actors and Orchestra” by Tom Stoppard (words) and André Previn (music).

And what a play!—as luminescent as always where Stoppard is concerned. The music component of the one-nighter at Town Hall—a showcase for the Boston University College of Fine Arts—is by a 47-piece live orchestra, the significant instrument being, well, a triangle.

When, in 1974, André Previn, then principal conductor of the London Symphony, invited Stoppard “ to write something which had the need of a live full-time orchestra onstage,” the 36-year-old playwright jumped at the chance.

One hitch: Stoppard at the time knew “very little about ‘serious’ music… My qualifications for writing about an orchestra,” he says in his introduction to the 1978 Grove Press edition of “EGBDF,” “amounted to a spell as a triangle player in a kindergarten percussion band.”

From this vantage point there emerged in time—a long, difficult, trial-and-error time—a script about “a millionaire triangle-player who had his own orchestra,” which became a script about “a lunatic triangle-player who thought he had an orchestra and was now sharing a cell with a political prisoner.”

Which is what “EGBDF” is all about. Dazzlingly. Angrily. Chillingly. And the political prisoner in that cell—sorry, Third Civil Mental Hospital ward—is a dissident in Soviet Europe who feels that dissidents who dare to write and speak shouldn’t be clapped into prison cells for years on end to be shot full of drugs and worse as psychiatric patients.

Doctor: Your behavior is causing alarm… I have to consider seriously whether an Ordinary Hospital can deal with your symptoms.

Alexander [the prisoner/patient, who had threatened to go on a hunger strike]: I have symptoms, I have opinions.
Doctor: Your opinions are your symptoms.

You can take the boy out of Czechoslovakia (where Stoppard was born), but you can’t take Czechoslovakia out of the boy—or the brilliant playwright he turns out to be. Stoppard’s “Rock ’n’ Roll” these three decades after “EGBDF,” is further proof of that—also of Stoppard’s actual bent in music!—and that play’s Jan, taken by the state police from prison to 12 years’ forced labor in a state-owned Prague bakery would have much to talk about with “EGBDF”’s Alexander.

Alexander himself is based in part, Stoppard tells us, on real-life prototype Victor Fainburg and Vladimir Bukovsky, dissidents who would not stop talking out loud (Fainburg in protest of the tanks grinding into Prague 1968) and were “treated” in mental asylums, and worse, for their pains.

The two other principal characters in the 90-minute “EGBDF,” drawn with Euclidean economy, are Alexander’s 9-year-old son Sacha, to whom a triangle is Euclid’s shortest distance between three points and Alexander’s looney-tunes cellmate, Ivanov, the triangle-player who has a whole symphony orchestra in his head and is convinced that Alexander is a member of that orchestra. An orchestra he, Ivanov, deplores.

Ivanov: I’ve got a violin section which is to violin playing what Heifetz is to water polo. I’ve got a tubercular great-nephew of John Philip Sousa who goes oom when he should be going pah. I’m seriously thinking of getting a new orchestra. Do you read music?

Alexander: No.

Ivanov: Don’t worry: crochers, minims, sharp, flat, every good boy deserves favour. You’ll pick it up in no time. What is your instrument?

Alexander: I do not play an instrument.

Every good boy deserves favour is an acronym, I guess you’d call it, or a fleshed-out acronym, for the treble clef in music, EGBDF. In this stunning “play for actors with orchestra,” it has at least a double meaning: The Soviet apparatchiks saying in effect to patient/prisoner Alexander, just be a good boy, shut up, don’t go on a hunger strike, admit you’re cured, and we’ll let you go; and also Alexander’s young son Sacha, with tears in his eyes, saying, begging the same thing—just conform, Papa, to save your life, everything will be all right.

When “EGBDF” premiered at London’s Festival Hall in July 1977, with Previn conducting and Trevor Nunn directing, the stellar cast included Ian McKellen, John Wood, Patrick Stewart, and Barbara Leigh-Hunt. The Town Hall performance March 14 will be by students and graduates of Boston University under the direction of Jim Petosa; the orchestra conducted by Neal Hampton.

It is all part of the university’s In Cite Arts Festival, which brings to New York not only this “EGB” but a “Sow and Weep,” by CFA alumna Nitzan Halperin (about the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation), and “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat,” the one-act chamber opera by Michael Nyman, adapted from the case study by Oliver Sachs.

So now, at Town Hall, listen as Ivanov raises his triangle and the rod with which to strike it. Listen to the orchestra that isn’t there. All 47 pieces of it.

“Every Good Boy Deserves Favour” By Tom Stoppard (text) and André Previn (score). Presented by the Boston University College of Fine Arts. March 14, 8 p.m., at Town Hall, 123 West 43rd St. 212-840-2824 or 212-307-9100, ticketmaster.com

“The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat,” March 10, 7 p.m., and March 12, 9 p.m., at Helen Mills Theater, 137-139 West 26th St., 212-840-2824.

“Sow and Weep” March 10, 9 p.m., Helen Hills Theater, as above (212) 243-6200.





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