The Oxford Roof Climber’s Rebellion” might make an interesting novel. But as a play, it never comes to life. With an admirably epic imagination, playwright Stephen Massicotte re-imagines the real-life friendship between T.E. Lawrence and British poet Robert Graves as the impetus for a revolution. Both studying at Oxford immediately after WWI, the men bear the emotional scars of battle, and the scribe wants their attempts at healing to embody the larger cultural unrest that springs from conflict. Yet he gives himself just 90 minutes and five characters to make his point, making the slender play buckle under the weight of its ambition.
Take the initial exposition, which has so much ground to cover it drags on for almost a half-hour. We learn that Lawrence (Dylan Chalfy) is disgruntled with Britain’s post-war treatment of the Arabs, and we hear about his disdain for Lord Curzon (George Morfogen), who is both the British foreign secretary and chancellor of Oxford. Plus, we’re told Lawrence (a.k.a. Lawrence of Arabia) hates to be touched, is working on a memoir, and likes to play political pranks under the aegis of a secret society called the Oxford Roof Climbers.
In other words, Lawrence is a catchall for rebellious impulses. And his introductory scenes barely cover Graves (Stafford Clark-Price), who symbolizes how war destroys families; Graves’ wife Nancy (Erin Moon), who stands in for the suffrage movement; and Lawrence’s servant Jack (Tom Cleary), on-hand to depict the common man.
This set-up veers between confusing and stagnant. Important facts fly by in a single phrase, never to be repeated, yet they barely make an impression. It’s hard to keep track of who fought where and why it matters now.
And the tidbits are delivered without dramatic purpose. Massicotte doesn’t construct an active need for Lawrence and Graves to recite their backstories, so they just stand around chatting in various locations. Tedium ensues.
Director Roger Danforth exacerbates the problem by favoring pretty images over dramatic function. When Curzon chastises Lawrence and Graves for their pranks, the two culprits sit with their backs to us for several minutes, even when they speak. It’s a striking visual that nevertheless sucks energy out of the room.
Eventually, something does happen in the play — Lawrence’s Arab-friendly activism has serious consequences for the characters and the outside world — and for a moment, there are stakes. As a result, the actors snap to attention. Mostly, the cast relies on reductive gestures, like the smug grin Chalfy uses to convey impudence, but they become fiercely committed to the final scenes. Cleary especially engages with his flustered, tearful revelation about how the war has broken him.
The intensified acting also distracts from the design, which strains for poetic heft. The main set piece, for instance, is a screen set into the upstage wall. Video designer Alex Koch fills it with pictures of Oxford and crumbling Arab buildings, but the shifting visuals are more a nuisance than an insight. And they don’t make the play feel any less inert.