Leave it to playwright Rajiv Joseph to turn the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo, the event that led directly to the outbreak of the First World War, into Archduke, not only the year’s screwballsiest comedy but one with contemporary relevance in a world of suicide bombers and suicide voters.

History informs us that 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip (Stephen Stocking) pulled the trigger that killed the archduke and his wife.

What Joseph’s play tells us with tongue firmly in cheek is that Gavrilo’s association with Serbian nationalist ringleader Dragutin “Apis” Dimitrijevic (Patrick Page) came about as the result of a visit to a certain Dr. Leko (Todd Weeks) during which the tubercular young man coughed blood, prompting in him not the fear you’d expect but a string of increasingly abject apologies for having stained (horror of horrors!) the doctor’s wife’s lace hanky.

And if this weren’t already enough, Gavrilo’s curiosity about the skeleton hanging in Dr. Leko’s office (“How did you extract the bones from her body?”) turns to distress when he accidentally demolishes “Dubravka” (the name he bestows upon the bones) and may be the closest the still virginal young man will ever get to meeting a real live girl.

Enter Apis, who shows up at Dr. Leko’s feigning concern that he too might be suffering from consumption, but soon reveals an ulterior motive. The doctor is to round up five “lungers” whose terminal diagnosis makes them ideal candidates for his assassination plot, and if the good doctor should happen to object …

To put it mildly, Apis is one man with whom you do not wish to tangle, and before long Gabrillo and his fellow recruits Nedeljko (Josiah Bania) and Trifko (Ramiz Monsef) are learning how to set off bombs, that is assuming Dumb, Dumber, and Dumberer can manage not to accidentally blow themselves up in a scene that would do Larry, Moe, and Curly proud.

Before long, Apis is lecturing the boys on the need the need to free Serbia from “the suffocating grip of Austro-Hungary” (an acting tour de force for Broadway star Page and a history refresher for the audience), Apis’s old crone of a servant Sladjana (Joanne McGee) is serving Gabrillo, Nedeljko, and Trifko the dessert of their dreams, and the boys’ train ride to Sarajevo has them savoring sandwiches while fantasizing about the women they won’t live to love, just one instance of the sadness underlying Archduke’s surface glee.

On the surface, Joseph’s play provides entertainment that would do screwball masters Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges proud.

Dig deeper and you’ll see that Archduke’s trio of inadvertent revolutionaries have their 21st-century equivalents in young men and women seduced into dying for a cause they may not fully understand or voters without the smarts to know the consequences of their choices.

A tricky mix of slapstick and tragedy, indeed, but one which longtime Joseph collaborator Giovanna Sardelli and the sextet of New York-L.A. actors she directs in this Mark Taper Forum World Premiere are more than up to.

Mellifluously-voiced Page has the showiest part, the kind that dazzles award voters, and he is simply magnificent, whether strong-arming sick young men or recalling in gruesome details what it felt like to assassinate by disembowelment.

Bania’s sweetly endearing Nedeljko, Monsef’s outwardly macho, inwardly mush Trifko, Weeks’ good-hearted, unwillingly complicit Dr. Leko, and McGee’s scene-stealing grouch-with-a-heart-of-gold Sladjana are all simply marvelous.

Still, it is Stocking’s hilariously bumbling, deliciously naïve, achingly vulnerable Gabrillo who gives Archduke its heart and soul and earns every decibel of his curtain call cheers.

Archduke looks and sounds sensational thanks to Tim Mackabee’s striking scenic design, one that earns spontaneous applause when its Act Two surprise is revealed, Denitsa Bliznakova’s pitch-perfect period costumes, Lap Chi Chu’s subtly dramatic lighting design, and sound designer Daniel Kluger’s pulsating original music, and fight director Steve Rankin merits kudos as well.

Lindsay Allbaugh is associate producer. Joy Meads is dramaturg. David S. Franklin is production stage manager.

Kathleen Campbell, David Nevell, Bryan Porter, and Joe Wegner are understudies.

As rewarding as it is unexpected, Rajiv Joseph’s daringly ditzy-and-deep Archduke entertains and absorbs in equal measure. And don’t be surprised if it has you googling the facts behind the farce.

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Mark Taper Forum, 35 N. Grand Avenue, Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
May 7, 2017
Photos: Craig Schwartz

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