American Airlines Theatre
227 West 42nd St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through June 17, $59-$252
“I’m finding this conversation extremely hard to follow,” Henry Carr (Tom Hollander) tells Tristan Tzara (Seth Numrich) in Tom Stoppard’s Travesties, which is being revived in a thoroughly entertaining Roundabout production at the American Airlines Theatre through June 17. The playwright is famous for his complex plot lines and dialogue, but in Travesties, as in such other Stoppard works as Arcadia, The Coast of Utopia, and The Invention of Love, you need not get every literary or political reference in order to have a grand old time. In 1917, British diplomat Carr, Romanian Dada leader Tzara, Irish writer James Joyce (Peter McDonald), and Russian Communist revolutionary V. I. Lenin (Dan Butler) were all in neutral Zurich as WWI raged. In Travesties, Stoppard imagines the four men interacting at the Zurich Public Library and Carr’s apartment as Joyce (in a mismatched suit) shares limericks (“A librarianness of Zurisssh / only emerged from her niche / when a lack of response / to Ruhe Bitte. Silence! / Obliged her to utter the plea.”) and writes what would become Ulysses, the monocle-wearing Tzara spouts Dada doctrines (“All literature is obscene! The classics – tradition – vomit on it!”), and Lenin makes party declarations while writing Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (“We must say to you bourgeois individualists that your talk about absolute freedom is sheer hypocrisy. There can be no real and effective freedom in a society based on the power of money.”). Meanwhile, Carr sues Joyce over a pair of trousers involved in a presentation of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. (That part is actually true.) Also adding to the marvelous mayhem are Bennett (Patrick Kerr), Carr’s very well informed butler; Nadya (Opal Alladin), Lenin’s wife; Gwendolyn (Scarlett Strallen), Carr’s younger sister; and Cecily (Sara Topham, who portrayed Wilde’s Cecily in a 2012 production of Earnest at the McCarter Theatre), the astute librarian.
Travesties is told from the point of view of Carr, an unreliable narrator who is telling the story half a century later as an old man in a ratty hat. Many scenes are repeated, slightly differently, in what Stoppard calls “time-slips,” accompanied by a flashing light and darkness, as if Carr’s sketchy memory is making a do-over. (The lighting design is by Neil Austin, with sound and music by Adam Cork.) In 1975, Stoppard told the Village Voice, “I must make clear that, insofar as it’s possible for me to look at my own work objectively at all, the element which I find most valuable is the one that most people are put off by — that is, that there is very often no single, clear statement in my plays. What there is, is a series of conflicting statements made by conflicting characters, and they tend to play a sort of infinite leap-frog.” That leap-frogging also applies to Stoppard’s judicious use of repurposed quotes from Shakespeare (Hamlet, As You Like It, Julius Caesar, others), Ulysses, and, primarily, The Importance of Being Earnest while commenting on the state of art itself. “The idea of the artist as a special kind of human being is art’s greatest achievement, and it’s a fake!” Carr says. “A man may be an artist by exhibiting his hindquarters. He may be a poet by drawing words out of a hat,” Tzara explains. “What now of the Trojan War if it had been passed over by the artist’s touch? Dust. A forgotten expedition prompted by Greek merchants looking for new markets,” Joyce relates. “The sole duty and justification for art is social criticism,” Cecily tells Carr. And Lenin declares, “Literature must become a part of the common cause of the proletariat, a cog in the Social democratic mechanism.”
Travesties takes place on Tim Hatley’s literary set, a wood-paneled library with stacks and stacks of blank books lined up on shelves and typescript pages scattered across the floor, along with a piano that Carr occasionally plays. (Hatley also designed the splendid costumes.) Stoppard originally asked his friend Patrick Marber to recommend potential directors for this revival, but Marber ultimately suggested himself, and Stoppard agreed. Stoppard also agreed to some changes, adding back elements from the 1974 version and cutting things from a later published edition. Marber (Dealer’s Choice, Don Juan in Soho) celebrates Stoppard’s love of language and controlled chaos in the unpredictable madcap farce, which never slows down for an instant and keeps audiences at the ready for just about anything to happen. Tony and Olivier nominee Hollander (Way of the World, Hotel in Amsterdam) is utterly delightful as Carr, revealing himself to be a wildly gifted comic actor with a firm grasp of the absurd. The rest of the cast is equally adept at mixing sociopolitical commentary with lovely tomfoolery and physical comedy. “Oh, what nonsense you talk!” Tzara tells Carr, who responds, “It may be nonsense, but at least it’s clever nonsense.” Tzara retorts, “I am sick of cleverness. In point of fact, everything is Chance,” to which Carr says, “That sounds awfully clever.” A moment later, Carr tells Tzara, “Oh, what nonsense you talk!,” to which Tzara explains, “But at least it’s not clever nonsense.” Such is Stoppard’s Travesties, in a nutshell.