Night and Day is the third production of the Jean Cocteau Rep's 30th Anniversary season, and the latest in a line of several Tom Stoppard works that the company has produced. Written in 1978, the play is notable in the esteemed author's canon in that it marks a transition in his work. Stoppard proved himself a master of linguistics and ideas in his earliest works such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and The Real Inspector Hound. His more recent plays (e.g., Arcadia) manage to employ the same dazzling techniques while tackling larger personal, social, and political issues. Night and Day seems to be the point at which these qualities first started to coalesce for Stoppard.
The play begins with a great deal of exposition. Even with George Guthrie (Tim Deak), the excitable field photographer, and Wagner (Jason Crowl), the cocky and jaded reporter, explaining at length why they're in Kambawe and how they hope to find out more about the impending clash between the two military powers, the situation is still convoluted enough that it takes awhile for the audience to get a grasp on things. Though Deak and Crowl seem interested enough in what the characters are talking about, their conversation doesn't keep our attention rapt, not even with director Ernest John's quick pacing. But as the story begins to sort itself out, more characters are introduced, and the stakes get higher, Night and Day becomes quite gripping. It's almost as if we're watching Stoppard hone his skills right before our eyes.
If the ensemble doesn't shine as much as might be expected, they are a solid bunch. Harris Berlinsky does an excellent job of making Geoffrey Carson more than the traditional one-note colonial master, instead giving the role an understated and sensitive performance. Carson's wife, Ruth, is really the play's focal character, and Angela Madden doesn't quite nail the part; she hits most of the comic beats, but Ruth's vulnerability seems more humorously desperate than heartfelt, leaving something of an emotional void.
Fortunately there is Taylor Bowyer to pick up the slack. Bowyer, who was also terrific in Jean Cocteau's The Cradle Will Rock, plays Jacob Milne, an upstart reporter who scoops Wagner. Always wearing a goofy grin and projecting an idealistic enthusiasm, Jacob is the moral center of Night and Day, and it's when he starts talking that we really know we're in a Stoppard play. As major questions about the role of the press come to a boil, the play is at its most enthralling. And when these issues hit up against an escalating plot, Night and Day finally becomes a great play.
Night and Day was criticized at its premiere. This was probably due more to the fact that the play was not what audiences had come to expect from Stoppard than anything else. In hindsight, there is clear evidence herein of the author's growth from the status of a terribly clever playwright to a truly brilliant one.