Jason McDowell-Green and Alex Mickiewicz in Tom Stoppards 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 tinkleor 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 Halla showcase for the Boston University College of Fine Artsis 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 timea long, difficult, trial-and-error timea 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 cellsorry, Third Civil Mental Hospital wardis a dissident in Soviet Europe who feels that dissidents who dare to write and speak shouldnt 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 cant take Czechoslovakia out of the boyor the brilliant playwright he turns out to be. Stoppards Rock n Roll these three decades after EGBDF, is further proof of thatalso of Stoppards actual bent in music!and that plays 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 EGBDFs 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 Alexanders 9-year-old son Sacha, to whom a triangle is Euclids shortest distance between three points and Alexanders 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: Ive got a violin section which is to violin playing what Heifetz is to water polo. Ive got a tubercular great-nephew of John Philip Sousa who goes oom when he should be going pah. Im seriously thinking of getting a new orchestra. Do you read music?
Ivanov: Dont worry: crochers, minims, sharp, flat, every good boy deserves favour. Youll 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 youd 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, dont go on a hunger strike, admit youre cured, and well let you go; and also Alexanders young son Sacha, with tears in his eyes, saying, begging the same thingjust conform, Papa, to save your life, everything will be all right.
When EGBDF premiered at Londons 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 universitys 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 isnt 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.