Long Wharf Theatre, New Haven
To be properly prepared for Tom Stoppard’s “Travesties,” now on stage at Long Wharf, one should definitely read the play in advance. Moreover, a working acquaintance with Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” is imperative, not to mention some knowledge of James Joyce’s “Ulysses.”
Unfortunately, most people do not read texts in advance, and Stoppard’s lines—often brilliant and hilarious—are likely to fly over their heads. Stoppard has a way of incorporating and building upon the works of others, with never a qualm or apology. Moreover, he interweaves history with fiction, past with present, playing fast and loose with time. In the process he sounds off on art, politics, life, love, and the result, in this case, is a zany roller coaster ride.
“Travesties,” to be specific, is a memory piece. An old man, one Henry Carr, looks back upon his years in Zurich, Switzerland. The play moves between the crotchety old Carr of 1972, trying imperfectly to remember the past, and his youthful self of 1917. In Zurich of those war years, the city was crowded with intellectuals and artists of every stripe, refugees from the surrounding countries at war. Stoppard draws on the historic facts that James Joyce, Vladimir Lenin, and Tristan Tzara (founder of the Dadaist art movement) were indeed in Zurich at the time. He adds to the mix two attractive young women, whom he names Gwendolyn and Cecily (names Oscar Wilde fans will recognize).
One must respect Stoppard’s formidable talent, but does “Travesties” work as a play? In our view, no. What is certainly lacking is a through-line. This is not a piece that goes some place, where a viewer waits eagerly to see what will happen next. Though Lenin’s story is clearly depicted, it does not constitute the very core of “Travesties,” but is merely one of the side shows.
Yet, whatever the play lacks, the production supplies in spades. Director Gregory Boyd has turned “Travesties” into a lively three-ring circus, with unexpected dance numbers, vaudeville tunes, strip-tease acts, and even an all-out pie-in-your-face routine. But with all of this, Boyd keeps it firmly under control and brings it off with grace and elegance.
The cast is excellent, with special kudos to Cheryl Lynn Bowers and Maggie Lacey as Gwendolyn and Cecily respectively, and to Don Stephenson as James Joyce. All three give treasured performances. But Tom Hewitt, Gregor Paslawsky, Isabel Keating, and Graeme Malcolm give strong support. Only Sam Waterston, in the lead, disappoints. His voice does not project, particularly when he becomes the elderly Henry Carr. The British-accented lines, rendered in a quavering elderly voice, simply do not reach the upper tiers of Long Wharf.
In all, this almost three-hour show (with a first act that runs about an hour and a half) can be heavy-going, particularly if one is not in touch with Stoppard’s witty lines. But the music hall atmosphere and first-rate performances may provide theatergoers with enough compensation.
-- Irene Backalenick
May 12, 2005