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Shipwrecked! An Entertainment
The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (As Told by Himself)

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Michael Countryman, Donnetta Lavinia Grays, and Jeremy Bobb.
Photo by James Leynse.

The diminutive, dumbed-down theatrical epic must be here to stay. First came The 39 Steps, in which four actors made a two-hour joke of a serious Hitchcock film. Then came Around the World in 80 Days, in which five actors made a two-hour joke of a serious Jules Verne novel. Now, in Donald Margulies's Shipwrecked! An Entertainment: The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (As Told by Himself), three actors make a 90-minute joke of a man who already is a joke - or, rather, would be if anyone today remembered - or cared - who he was.

While Shipwrecked! is - by far - the most watchable of the three, it's also the most disappointing. Not just because Margulies, who's demonstrated a knack for rooting out issues of acceptance and identity in unusual places, can do better, as has proven as much with plays such as Sight Unseen, Dinner With Friends, and Brooklyn Boy. But also because he and his director, Lisa Peterson, haven't figured out how to make coherent theatre from their paper-thin conceit: Those other shows were unified messes; Shipwrecked! is just sloppy.

De Rougemont (Michael Countryman), a London native who claimed he spent almost 30 years living among Aborigines in the Australian Outback, supposedly exists in his own Victorian era, and that's reflected in both his costumes (by Michael Krass) and in his stuffy, reserved manner; yet his ensemble assistants, Jeremy Bobb and Donnetta Lavinia Grays, are clad in modern, American dress. The props that define de Rougemont's journey range from tiny, timeless, and utilitarian (bedsheets used as a sails, and so on) to an eye-squeezingly anachronistic-looking plastic toy for the finale. And De Rougemont evolves over the course of his story from a pillar of confidence to a puddle of insecurity, despite nothing changing in the meta-world housing the "play" he's performing.

As was the case with The 39 Steps and Around the World in 80 Days, the jagged nature of this production prevents easily assimilation of it if you try to connect with it intellectually or emotionally. Margulies and Peterson can't, and shouldn't, be excused so many basic mistakes merely because they were aiming so low. There's no reason for so incomprehensible a timeline, for so many inconsistencies to impede a potentially fascinating examination of whether de Rougemont was apathetic, deceitful, a raving loon, or - just maybe - marginally truthful. But when the playwright and director can't pinpoint their point, no amount of theatrical invention - even in a show designed to celebrate exactly that - is going to help.

What unquestionably does is Bobb, who presides over an array of sparkling sound effects and delightful roles that include an adorable dog, a tribe of cannibals, Queen Victoria, and - in an unexpectedly jolting coup de theatre - a gaggle of newspaper-grabbing Englishmen. He melts from one personality to another with unblinking grace, never existing above even his dopiest characters. The same can't be said of Grays, who's just as malleable as Bobb, but more given to commenting on the clich├ęs she's forced to work with; her pearl-hungry ship captain, for example, is leeringly by the book - the only things missing are the peg leg and the parrot.

Countryman is a natural-born narrator, but at best blandly compelling in a role that requires a certain magnetism to guide you through de Rougemont's jumble of uncertainties. He must convince you of his sincerity and his veracity, as well as wield an effortless ability to weave together truths, falsehoods, and outright fantasies into a believable tapestry of an unbelievable life. Countryman is a likeable, avuncular presence, but he doesn't radiate the strength of body or mind de Rougemont needs - he approaches everything gingerly, even apologetically.

His reluctance, however, is not surprising. It's that same lack of conviction and attention to detail that waterlog the rest of the show, too. There's enough here to please children, but anyone with an age above the single digits is unlikely to be transported by a play this confusingly and condescendingly simple. "Are you ready to be astonished?" asks de Rougemont early on: If you are, rest assured you'll still be ready once Shipwrecked! has run its course and run aground.

Shipwrecked! An Entertainment—The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (As Told by Himself)
Through March 7
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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