“Da, da!” when translated as “Yes, yes!” is a fittingly celebratory salutation to greet the sparkling and incisive revival of Tom Stoppard’s “Travesties” which has arrived at the American Airlines Theatre after shutting up shop following a successful run on London’s West End. Now, with the leading players intact, it is Broadway’s turn for a share of spring madness — Stoppard style! Aren’t we lucky?
Anyone pondering the wisdom of reviving this play in the current moment can simply hang on as we count the ways that a piece Stoppard wrote as a dazzling wunderkind still in his thirties continues to illuminate our untethered times with whiplash accuracy.
I was lucky enough to see the original production that won the Tony Award for Best Play in 1976. My recollection then was of being wowed by the almost casual brilliance of the play’s impossibly clever structure. How could so many theatrical spinning plates remain aloft? These devices include but are not limited to: extended ideological lectures (these seem shortened in the current production, or has my attention span increased?), shifting time periods, a deconstruction and reassembly of Oscar Wilde’s immortal “The Importance of Being Earnest” and clockwork farce sequences punctuated by vaudevillian musical interludes. The whole zany commotion is bookended by an opaque opening — the play begins with nonsense language from “Finnegans Wake” — and finally teases with a titillating inconclusive ending.
And then, of course, for lovers of acrostics everywhere there is the acrobatic language which became Stoppard’s signature; puns, alliteration, literary and historical in-jokes and skewered clichés, which all fly past at lightning speed. (A suggestion for audience members: As long as you get the gist, I would recommend that you stop trying to keep up and simply enjoy the passing parade!)
But as is so often with Stoppard, these are entertaining gambits with a serious purpose. As World War I rages on, Stoppard has us visit a trio of historical luminaries marooned in Zurich: the Irish novelist James Joyce, who is busy writing his form-defying novel, “Ulysses;” the communist revolutionary Lenin, who is refining his political philosophy, (“A lie told often enough becomes the truth.”) and Dadaist movement founder and anti-establishment playwright, Tristan Tzara, who is expressing his discontent with nationalism and violence by renouncing any art that fails to flout bourgeois convention. (Tzara would, however, presumably approve of “Travesties.”)
Mediating between these improbably assembled outliers is Henry Carr (played by Tom Hollander), a middling British consular official who self-importantly imagines himself at the center of a political and aesthetic revolution. The play is told through the prism of the aged Carr’s faulty memory, and he proves an unreliable narrator. So unreliable, in fact, that the action is frequently interrupted and “rewound,” as Carr attempts to reconstruct events more accurately.
It is apparently a matter of historical record that Joyce did in fact put on Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” in which Carr did not play the title character, but rather Algernon (“the other one” — an ongoing gag).
Hollander’s Carr starts off as a sad-sack clown intent on wringing meaning from his past through the gauze of faltering memory, helped along by some “should have been” inventions depicting how he wished things to have transpired. (He is writing his memoirs under a series of ridiculous titles.) Soon enough Carr is catapulted back to his dapper prime, inhabiting a bibliophile haven of a flat (designed by Tom Haley), strewn with literary ephemera that comes in handy when it is time for the Carr’s swanky home to double as a library. A gifted physical comedian, Hollander evokes a comedic sensibility somewhere between Ricky Gervais and Dudley Moore that acutely nails his surreal task. His butler, Bennett (Patrick Kerr) is a covert socialist, who is almost as wittily dry and irreplaceable as John Gielgud was in his “I’ll alert the media” prime.
But Hollander’s nuanced performance also, and somewhat surprisingly, made me feel compassion for the popinjay who needed so badly to believe that he had counted. And it is interesting to wonder how history might have changed if the real life Carr had managed, as was his charge, to intercept the Russians before they left Zurich instead of spending time choosing trousers for amateur theatricals.
Director Patrick Marber, who is also a respected playwright (best known perhaps for “Closer”) has emphasized the bittersweetness underneath the hijinks and coaxed out a depth of feeling without compromising the Swiss watch precision of the play. Perhaps that is the neatest hat trick of all.
We also get to meet the distaff handmaidens of the “great men,” though the women have evolved in a satisfying fashion from Wilde’s original leading ladies of “Earnest.” The droll Gwendolen (played here by versatile actor and impressive songstress, Scarlett Strallen) turns up simultaneously as Carr’s sister, Joyce’s secretary and Tzara’s love interest. (The scene where Tzara is clandestinely pleasuring Gwendolen whilst Joyce obliviously assumes her ecstasy is derived from the genius of his prose is priceless.) Seth Numrich is inexhaustibly exuberant as the dashing and resourceful Tzara, while Peter McDonald eschews most of the nonsense and gives us a convincingly focused Joyce.
Cecily no longer has the last name Cardew, per Wilde’s play, but is now a Caruthers, and she boasts a career as a Lenin-loving, Russian-speaking librarian. Sara Topham strikes just the right mix of Marxist zealotry and romantic susceptibility in a disciplined yet risky performance, which includes a strip tease under a disco ball. The musical mad hatter’s tea party that replaces Wilde’s tussle over lumps of sugar was brilliantly essayed by Strallen and Topham, and was a highlight of the production. Dan Butler, as Lenin, and Opal Alladin, as the revolutionary’s long-suffering wife, Nadya, are both excellent.
“Travesties” engages in heated debate about the role of art in society. This debate is only possible because all the characters are safe from the maelstrom underway just beyond the Swiss borders. (Ironically, only Carr actually served in the Great War.) If one interpretation of the play’s title is the implication that all the characters, along with their convictions, are travesties of objective reality — remember, we have only the vacillating recollections of Carr to guide us — then are we not all similarly caught in our own warped reality while shouting our rightness at others across the void? Sounds a lot like the predicament of America in 2018. How could Stoppard have seen the future with such chilling clarity? Go laugh, wince and wonder.
“Travesties” opened at the American Airlines Theatre on Tues., April 24, 2018.
Creative: Written by Tom Stoppard; Original Music: Adam Cork; Directed by Patrick Marber; Scenic Design by Tim Hatley; Costume Design by Tim Hatley; Lighting Design by Neil Austin; Sound Design by Adam Cork.
Producers: Produced by Roundabout Theatre Company; Produced in association with Chocolate Factory Productions and Sonia Friedman Productions.
Cast: Tom Hollander, Peter McDonald, Seth Numrich, Opal Alladin, Dan Butler, Patrick Kerr, Scarlett Strallen, Sara Topham.