Robert Brustein has a lot of nerve, which is almost a good thing. “The English Channel” isn’t the most successful comic riff on the Great Shakes’ friendships and careers, but it sustains enough forward motion (for a while) to propel its audience past any unflattering comparisons to “Shakespeare in Love,” and into a story about inspiration garnished with a murder subplot. Brustein breaks out the gags as soon as he can, but his repertoire is so limited that the 105-minute play wears out its welcome after about an hour.
Like Tom Stoppard and John Madden, Brustein fills his play with phrases that everyone around Shakespeare (an enjoyably wide-eyed Stafford Clark-Price) drops at the Bard’s feet, only to have him snatch them up and jam them into a poem or play.
Stoppard confidently smuggled these references into his screenplay without drawing attention to them, but Brustein is concerned we won’t understand how clever he is, so instead of say, 50 Shakespeare jokes, we get one Shakespeare joke, 50 times: Will rushing back and forth to his desk to take a note every time somebody mentions his too, too solid flesh or a local beauty with hair like black wires, Emilia (Lori Gardner).
Soon, Emilia and Will’s solid flesh are better acquainted, courtesy of Kit Marlowe (Sean Dugan), Will’s chief competitor and confidant, who has also stolen Will’s randy 19-year-old patron Henry Wriothesley (Brian Robert Burns). So far, so good, except for the weird brand of foot-stamping, hair-tossing Carson Kressley affectation forced into the play by Burns and, one must assume, director Daniela Varon.
Whether or not New York auds need flashing neon lights reading “GAY” over a play’s homosexual characters, the only way this could possibly look appropriate would be in a restoration comedy, for which this is about 70 years early.
In fact, Varon has gone to great lengths to sexualize the play, including suggestive finger-poking, fondling of imaginary scrota and dry humping by nearly all the characters. Brustein’s dialogue is plenty overheated all by itself, and it would have helped the play immeasurably if Varon had guided her actors to max out on deadpan. Some players, like Marlowe, are given a little gravity by Laura Crow’s costumes, while Clark-Price must suffer a codpiece that makes him look like a marsupial.
The play’s saving grace is Dugan, who wanders around the stage claiming booze, sex and loyal friendship as his inalienable rights. You get the sense the barmaid keeps giving him ale just to see what he’ll do with it. He starts off the proceedings with a bang, appearing posthumously in full stabbed-eye glory as he recites some of his own lines and introduces us to the scene. Sadly, it’s the best moment in the show.