Primary stages production of the whimsically named Shipwrecked! An Entertainment—The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (As Told By Himself) isn’t dedicated to Jack Foley, who forged many of the techniques for making sound on film, but it probably ought to be. Director Lisa Peterson has staged the play, first mounted at California’s South Coast Repertory and later at Connecticut’s Long Wharf Theatre, as a complete immersion into the meta-theatrical, and to thoroughly engaging effect.
The play by Donald Margulies (author of Sight Unseen and the Pulitzer Prize–winning Dinner with Friends) isn’t a watershed event; it’s more a comic bouffe than a reach for Wagnerian heights. But it’s a tasty truffle from an inventive dramatist gifted at sniffing around. Commissioned to write something for South Coast Rep’s series for young audiences, Margulies happened upon the historical fluke that was de Rougemont—his real name was Henri Louis Grin—and immediately realized it’s seriocomic potential.
Born in 1847, Grin spent his first halfcentury quite unremarkably, as a valet and butler for the upper classes. Supposedly, when he was 16, the actress Fanny Kemble, scion of a great theatrical family, hired him to be her footman.This allowed Grin, who was Swiss, to perfect his English and to travel the world. Much later, Grin acquired a vessel for pearl harvesting that was said to be lost at sea. It was really a half-truth—but true enough that subsequent events provided Grin with all the ingredients he needed to achieve fame.
In 1898, Grin reappeared in Britain and began publishing a series of autographical tales so outlandish they gripped the imagination of a gullible public. Some narratives followed his pearling expeditions; others detailed the 30odd years Grin claimed to have communed among the Aborigines in the Australian outback. Printing presses grew hotter as circulation steadily climbed, and soon Grin was a gentleman of note, the orb around which the average and the high-toned were equally itching to revolve. Alas for him, though, he was a late-Victorian Icarus, for cynics were soon so utterly piqued by him that they set about factchecking his yarns, finally debunking him entirely.The odd fellow whose finest achievement was abandoning his wife and children in deepest Oz was thus consigned to disgrace.
For Margulies, resurrecting the hoopla and revulsion that engulfed Grin is a means to an end: his initial stage direction calls for emphasizing the “very nature of artifice and storytelling” as much as the historical tale itself.This is why Grin serves as his own narrator and only calls himself de Rougemont.This is why Michael Countryman, one of our most beguiling journeyman actors, essays de Rougemont as a relentlessly good-natured and humble wizard of existence: an affable, relatable mortal to whom otherworldly scrapes, escapes and near-death experiences simply happened. And since it is dazzled by such an earnest, obliging man, the audience, whether versed or not in the truth of the matter, cannot help but invest in the fellow’s tootowering tales.What Margulies stirs in us is the same desire to believe in the fabulous—to believe in the fabulist, the infamous—that the Brits must have collectively experienced more than a century ago.
So we allow de Rougemont to regale us with memories of his childhood, ailing and under his mother’s care; we watch him, nave and clutching a volume of Shakespeare, embark on his first pearling expedition and find himself shipwrecked after a monumental typhoon.We observe him marooned but very much alive on a South Pacific island, accompanied by only his wits and his faithful dog; we follow him as he meets the frightened and aggressive Aborigines who eventually accept him into their fold, seeing in him something of a deity who finally marries one of their own. All of this narrative action is complemented by two actors—Donnetta Lavinia Grays and Jeremy Bobb—who race around the stage to play every secondary character, to hand off every prop, to provide every sound cue.
Were he standing solo atop the round, center-stage platform that represents most of Neil Patel’s set, Countryman would naturally be acclaimed for pulling off a tour de force. But it’s equally Grays and Bobb who foster the theatricality, the meta-theatricality, of Margulies and Peterson’s vision: Check out Grays as a sour captain of the pearling ship, and Bobb as the panting, trusty dog and an amused Queen Victoria. One could quibble with the occasional preciousness and cuteness of the piece, or one might express concerns over some stylistic inconsistencies that nearly send the play down the road to the Theater of the Ridiculous. But good storytelling is the goal, and the story, as de Rougemont might have said, must be told.
Through Mar. 7, 59E59 Theaters, 59 E. 59th St. (betw. Park & Madison Aves.), 212-279-4200; times vary, $20-$60.