Satisfying revival of Stoppard's `Hamlet' spinoff

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead Play by Tom Stoppard. Directed by Robert Carsen. Starring John Rubinstein, Stephen Lang, John Wood. ``Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,'' at the Roundabout Theatre, abounds in playgoing satisfactions - from the delivery of Tom Stoppard's ebulliently witty lines to the theatricalism of the big action scenes. The 1967 award-winning play about two Renaissance losers might, in TV jargon, be called a spinoff from ``Hamlet.'' In any case, the Roundabout's 20th anniversary revival is a triumph for director Robert Carsen - responding with relish to the Stoppard word play as well as to the opportunities for spectacle.

Mr. Stoppard supplies a ``character note'' for each of his protagonists in the opening stage directions for the coin-tossing scene in which Rosencrantz wins all the tosses. According to the playwright, Rosencrantz feels no surprise at the run of luck, but ``he is nice enough to feel a little embarrassed at taking so much money off his friend.'' Guildenstern ``is not worried about the money, but he is worried about the implications; aware but not going to panic about it - his character note.''

Stephen Lang as a round-faced Rosencrantz and John Rubinstein as a bespectacled Guildenstern have duly taken note. Mr. Rubinstein's Guildenstern is the intellectual, the hypothecator. Anything can set him off on a flight of philosophical speculation. Mr. Lang's Rosencrantz is the more literal-minded of the two; the actor portrays him as a relatively simple fellow, along for the ride, so to speak - though neither he nor his more cerebral companion know where it is taking them. In the meantime, they play word games to while away the Beckettian nightmare.

Costumed by Andrew B. Marlay in neat but not gaudy off-white courtier's dress, the two actors personify the chosen supernumeraries of Stoppard's play. They are the anonymous dress extras, never quite distinguishable to the King and Queen, who have summoned them to Elsinore. They move uneasily in the corridors of power. They are would-be influence peddlers with no influence to peddle. When they intimate to the Player (John Wood) that they have used their good offices to get him an Elsinore booking, he replies with the casual putdown that he and his troupe have previously played the palace.

It is left for Mr. Wood (the Guildenstern of the original Broadway production) to provide the color and flamboyance that lighten the darkness of ``Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.''

A vision in glorious Technicolor, Wood leads his raggle-taggle band of strolling players with a panache that defies mere audience indifference and a readiness to supply entertainment on demand. The Player belongs to ``the blood and rhetoric school'' of drama, and Wood has the vocal range to prove it. He can turn a word like ``repertoire'' into a cadenza. With Carryer and Bailey to stage the movement and fights, the player troupe contributes vitally to the action scenes.

In Stoppard's pirate siege, Hamlet is whisked off the ship carrying him to England after making the celebrated letter switch in which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern become the designated victims of Claudius's murder plot.

This is, of course, the final and darkest irony of ``Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,'' the prelude to the deaths of the two Shakespearean subordinate characters whom Stoppard has made central. Recalling once again the midnight summons that brought them to Elsinore, Guildenstern muses, ``There must have been a moment, at the beginning, where we could have said no. But somehow we missed it.''

Supplying the necessary background of Shakespearean characters is a Roundabout company that includes David Purdham (a somewhat mature Hamlet), Barbara Garrick (Ophelia), Stephen Newman (Claudius), Delphi Harrington (Gertrude), and Ron Randell (Polonius). The action occurs within Peter David Gould's fascinatingly cubelike enclosure, lighted with great imagination by Robert Jared. Aside from the burst of color for the Player, Mr. Marlay's costumes are somberly sumptuous. Peter Golub composed the incidental music. (The play continues through June 21.)

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