On evidence of Trevor Nunn's uber-reverent production, it's not just the two central characters in Tom Stoppard's 1967 career-launching play that occupy a strange theatrical limbo, the play itself does too.

On evidence of Trevor Nunn’s uber-reverent production, it’s not just the two central characters in Tom Stoppard’s 1967 career-launching play that occupy a strange theatrical limbo, the play itself does too. Its conceit — two minor figures from “Hamlet” come to terms with their expendability, as a production of Shakespeare’s play takes place around them — is fiercely clever, and a further popularization of 1950s theatrical existentialism. The play’s metatheatrical audacities, however, have since passed into convention, but not so long ago that we can safely name it a classic. What it feels like now is a long night in the theater.

Nunn underlines the play’s similarities to “Waiting for Godot” by staging the first scene — in which Ros (Samuel Barnett) and Guild (Jamie Parker) idly flip coins and try to remember the messenger who woke them that morning — in front of a gnarled tree on a bare stage. This has the probably unintended consequence of pointing up the virtue Beckett had that Stoppard lacks: brevity. In this lengthy introductory scene, and indeed throughout the play’s 2 3/4-hour playing time, it was hard not to wonder whether directors eventually will cut down this text, so obviously the product of a brilliant, tyro wordsmith feeling his oats.

It’s also possible a fresh production concept could inject a necessary liveliness and relevance, but Nunn places this staging safely back in time by dressing the “Hamlet” characters in resplendent Elizabethiana (beautifully realized by costume designer Simon Higlett). The only intriguing nod to the present is dressing Ros and Guild in contempo jeans and period doublets — but the implications of this are not followed through.

The leads are fine young actors who impressively put their own stamp on their characters. Stepping in at late notice for the ailing Tim Curry, Chris Andrew Mellon makes a strong impression as the Player — the leader of the theatrical troupe Hamlet enlists to expose his uncle, who Stoppard portrays as the hammy old hand showing Ros and Guild the ropes. Mellon has a gorgeous bass voice and a hint of old-style camp plummery that, one hopes, he may further expose as he makes the role his own.

The questions Stoppard asks here about stage representation as a game or system in which humans are entrapped have since been extended into the fields of postmodern, postdramatic and interactive theater, online gaming, and the filmic work of Michel Gondry, Charlie Kaufman and many others. The scribe was certainly onto something, way back then. But the best tribute to his achievement may be, at this point, to deconstruct the great deconstructer — not further enshrine him.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

Chichester Festival Theater, U.K.; 1,206 seats; £35 $57 top

Production

A Chichester Festival Theater production in association with Theater Royal Haymarket Prods. of a play in two acts by Tom Stoppard. Directed by Trevor Nunn. Sets and costumes, Simon Higlett; lighting, Tim Mitchell; music, Steven Edis; sound, Paul Groothuis; movement, Etta Murfitt; production manager, Paul Hennessy. Opened May 31, 2011; reviewed June 2. Running time: 2 HOURS, 45 MIN.

Cast

Rosencrantz - Samuel Barnett
Guildenstern - Jamie Parker
The Player - Chris Andrew Mellon
With: Michael Benz, Tomm Coles, Trevor Allan Davies, Zac Fox, Fiona Gillies, Tom Golding, Charlie Hamblett, Jack Hawkins, Elisabeth Hopper, Andrew Jarvis, Greg Last, Jody Elen Machin, James Northcote, Stephen Pallister, Katherine Press, James Simmons, Keith Thompson

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