WELLFLEET — Four actors are onstage throughout the Harbor Stage Company’s production of Tom Stoppard’s “Artist Descending a Staircase,” but the real star is the late Jack Foley.
The show, first produced as a radio play for the BBC in 1972, was later adapted for the theater. But Harbor Stage is ingeniously presenting it as a radio-play-for-the theater.
The impressive quartet of actors — Robin Bloodworth, Jonathan Fielding, Jason Lambert, and Brenda Withers — face the audience behind a long table, wearing headsets, alternately sitting and standing behind a large slab of Plexiglas. They’re in a spare, underlit recording studio, performing Stoppard’s odd-angles whodunit for broadcast.
Foley was the sound engineer who created so many effects for radio and film that the practice — Foley art — is named after him. In “Artist Descending,” the actors pepper the production with sounds from an array of effects stowed beneath the table in mounted milk crates: chattering tea cups, twinkling glass fragments, wheezing cranks, a scale-model door hung from a two-by-four box frame.
Stoppard’s play, co-directed here by company cofounders Fielding and Withers, is a kind of twofer, a meditation on the nature of art that doubles as a murder mystery. Three cranky, old-ish roommates, played by Bloodworth (the harrumphing Beauchamp), Fielding (persnickety Martello), and Lambert (exasperated Donner) — are all mediocre lifelong artists. Their strange encounter with Sophie (played by Withers), who falls in love at first sight with one of the artists and then goes blind, leads to the friction. Which of the artists did she fall for?
When the play begins, Donner has mysteriously tumbled to his death; Martello and Beauchamp each bitterly suspect the other of foul play. The “action,” as it were, unfolds in flashbacks, including a frightening long-ago encounter with warfare that bonded the budding artists.
The moments just before Donner’s death happened to have been captured on reel-to-reel tape by Beauchamp, whose artistic medium is the “found” sound of everyday life. “Ah, there you are!” says Donner’s disembodied voice, over and over again, providing a murky clue about what caused his fall.
It’s all pretty bleak. The Sophie interlude, in which she remembers how much she enjoyed the company of the roommates when they were younger (they reminded her of sporting “cricketers”), is a welcome respite, a sliver of emotional light on a stage that’s illuminated mainly by a descending string of bare bulbs.
Withers’s Sophie teeters precariously on the edge between romance and desperation; you’re not sure whether you want to comfort her or flee. Lambert’s Donner provides the other (relatively) likable character, a hapless sort whose pleading has some soul at its core.
Yet despite two deaths (yes, there’s another) and the artists’ communal despair, the play has an abundance of satisfying repartee, and it is not without its humor.
“Having killed one” roommate, grouses an accusing Martello to Beauchamp at one point, “you can’t afford to irritate the other.”
The playwright has loaded the dialogue with his customary pith about the purpose of art. There are references to “Pablo” and “Max” and other painting titans the roommates fancy themselves as having been acquainted with (the title, of course, is an allusion to Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase”), and there’s an inevitable aside about the uselessness of critics (Stoppard was one himself, briefly).
Despite an ongoing debate about the merits of modern art — “Why should art be something difficult to do?” asks one character — there seems to be some agreement that only “nonsense art” can make sense after the terrifying experience of world war.
In one scene, the three young comrades stumble onto a volley of artillery as they make their way through the French countryside. (Beauchamp is on horseback, which the actor indicates by clacking together two halves of a coconut shell, a la Monty Python. Sound designer Stowe Nelson deserves special mention.)
What if they’re shot as suspected spies?, frets Donner.
“That would be ridiculous!” he cries. “I don’t want to die ridiculously.” Which, of course, he does.
Still, the life of an artist is not so bad, Stoppard seems to be saying. Or at least it’s different. In a given community of a thousand people, Beauchamp says, there are 900 working, 90 doing well, nine doing good, “and one lucky dog painting or writing about the other 999.”
The timing is good for Harbor Stage’s tribute to Stoppard’s signature “mental acrobatics” (to borrow a phrase from Martello): the much-lauded playwright, now 77, has just announced that his first play since 2006, “The Hard Problem,’ will have its world premiere at London’s National Theatre in 2015.
He’s not ready to say much about the new work, he recently told the Daily Mail — though “it’s not about erectile dysfunction, anyway.”
And cue the comic slide-whistle.