Like all Stoppard endeavors, “Voyage” is chunky with cerebration, enamored of ideas more than of people, and designed to entertain, educate and intimidate theater audiences all at the same time. Beneath the hum of concentration — we are now in the fourth scene of the second act, set in The Telescope’s drab offices in the summer of 1835 — Stoppard leans over and speaks in a quiet voice that has about it an air of declarative finesse, a projection of polite authority. He enunciates his words in a crisp, plummy British accent (pronouncing “issue” as “ISS-yew”) that bears scant trace of his émigré status — Stoppard, who was born Tomas Straussler on July 3, 1937, in Czechoslovakia, escaped the Nazis with his family and landed in England when he was 8 — except for the Mitteleuropean roll he gives his r’s. “The last time I was in a technical,” he says, “was at the Royal Court Theater — and you can imagine how different that was.” I nod as if I can imagine it, although I can’t, but there is something about Stoppard that inspires the wish to prove worthy of him. (“I think most people working with Tom would like to feel they were speaking his language, and if not intellectual equals, somewhere in the same neighborhood,” O’Brien said. “Few of us are, but we all continually seek his approval.”)
Stoppard leans over again a minute or so later and whispers, “I love scrims.” He is referring to the sheer cotton or linen hangings that are used as opaque backdrops or semitransparent curtains. This strikes me as a comment straight out of Wilde, much like his character Guildenstern’s line “Give us this day our daily mask,” suggesting a preference for the veiled over the overt, for artifice over reality. Stoppard says it with a measure of catch-me-if-you-can irony. Do not come any closer. Full stop. Trespassers will be made to feel foolish, or worse yet, presumptuous. Full stop. Or maybe I read all this sub-rosa meaning into what is in the end is just a clever comment only after the fact, once I have met with the playwright several more times and still find myself scrambling for clues to the man behind the poise.
Voyage opens tomorrow!