I’ve never seen a play quite like “Roof of the World,’ D. Tucker Smith’s fictional extrapolation on the adventures of British explorer George Hayward. That’s not necessarily a good thing.
This two-act drama is full of exposition, logistical details and back-story, which now and then engage our interest with melodramatic twists and 19th-century cardboard villainy. Smith also throws in a few action elements: A prison break early in the play involves rope-swinging actors ducking imaginary bullets signaled by reports from unseen firearms. Later on there’s a gratuitous attempted rape in which a woman relies on her dexterity with a knife to defend her honor.
But Smith chooses a non-linear approach which has the unfortunate effect of giving away plot points too early. She undermines her own “surprise” elements as the narrative alternates from moving forward in time to recounting past events that inform the play’s “present.” The result is an awkwardly structured dramatic tale with almost no dramatic tension. That’s too bad because Smith has a potentially intriguing story to tell.
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Regardless, you can hardly fault the actors in the world-premiere production directed by Eric Rosen, Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s artistic director. They show up and do their jobs to the extent possible.
Without giving too much away, here are the key events in the play: Safia Das, an exotic beauty played by Anjali Bhimani, arrives in London and announces herself as Hayward’s wife. His blustering brother Edward (Brent Harris) and his prim mother Charlotte (Darrie Lawrence) are appalled, but his nephew Martin (Matthew Lindblom) is intrigued. Why is she here? What’s her agenda? Is she just after the family fortune?
In a flashback we learn how Hayward (Rusty Sneary) and Safia met: During a prison escape in Central Asia in which she assists Hayward and his friend Shaw (Jason Chanos), a tea planter. Then we see how their relationship grows and turns to love. And then we witness her inability to dissuade him from a dangerous expedition through a remote region in the Western Himalayas.
There’s also a framing device: A character identified only as Young Woman (Vanessa Severo) appears at the play’s beginning and end and at various points in-between. Supertitles tell us that her “present” is 1967 and in a series of monologues addressed directly to the audience we learn that she wants to obtain one of the paintings Hayward created on his travels. The mysterious woman’s identity is eventually revealed, but most viewers will have already guessed who she is.
“Roof of the World” is almost like two plays grafted together: The colonial romance and adventure tale, and the stultifying drawing-room melodrama back in England. At one point Edward’s fraudulent banking practices had me flashing on “The Voysey Inheritance.” And there was something about Edward’s secret life as a night-crawler that brought to mind Mr. Hyde.
Amid the fragmented narrative elements, a couple of worthwhile themes emerge: the importance of restoring historical artworks to their rightful owners, and the strength of women in a male-dominated culture.
Scenic designer Jack Magaw, who frequently works at the Rep, tries to solve the problem of a play that changes locations with the rapidity of a movie script by constructing an enormous cube in the middle of the stage. Equipped with side ladders, it serves as prison walls or mountaintops in some scenes. Spin it on its axis and it becomes the Hayward parlor or a sitting room at Shaw’s tea plantation. The spinning mechanism gets quite a workout.
Amanda Zieve’s lighting and Gregory Gale’s costumes give the show a sumptuous look.
Bhimani brings plenty of charisma to the stage and finds fleeting opportunities to inject moments of honest humor. But the needed chemistry between Bhimani and Sneary is never there. Sneary, for his part, throws his shoulder to the wheel and muscles his way through.
Chanos gives us a nice, uncluttered reading of Shaw while Bree Elrod offers an admirably understated performance as Prue, Edward’s betrothed. Lindblom brings a light comic touch to Martin. Harris earned my sympathy as the absurdly villainous Edward; the guy’s a good actor, obviously, but a man must do what he must do. Lawrence brings some depth and humor to Charlotte, who emerges as an endearing character.
Mark Robbins slips effortlessly into his harrumphing British bureaucrat mode as Rawlinson, the scheming head of the Royal Geographic Society. And Severo plays two other additional parts: Molly, a coquettish maid, and a character identified only as Whore. To call the roles undemanding is charitable.
So there you have it: “Roof of the World” is a messy, unsatisfying play that only vaguely explicates its worthwhile themes. The Rep has partnered with a commercial producer, Jana Robbins, with aim of giving this play a future life. I wish them luck. But for the moment all involved need to get back to the drawing board.
“Roof of the World” runs through March 27 at Copaken Stage, 13th and Walnut. Call 816-235-2700 or go to www.kcrep.org.