New York City Theater
American Airlines Theater
Throw author James Joyce, Russian leader Vladimir Lenin, Dada founder Tristan Tzara and embassy official Henry Carr into the same pot and what do you have? An intellectual stew? Or a zany mishmash of fame and ego, art and politics? The Roundabout revival of Tom Stoppard’s merry, 1974 “Travesties” opts for farce and zip. Add Oscar Wilde’’s masterful “The Importance of Being Earnest,” which Stoppard delectably paraphrases.
The setting is Zurich, the time is alternately 1917 “and some 50 years later.” An older Henry Carr reminisces, none too accurately, about what went on in those earlier days, bringing them to life.
In the city’s Central Library, “dynamic, gnomic, anemic” Lenin is writing his book on Imperialism, while “prudish, prudent, convivial” Joyce is working on his great “Ulysses.” Flitting in and out, Tzara, whose focus is on art or, rather, anti-art, deconstructs language and introduces Dadaism to the world. Cutting poems into pieces, he throws the bits in the air, then reads words in no particular order.
Carr, having been wounded in France, has been shipped to Switzerland as an exchange prisoner, where he meets Joyce. The latter, having cast Carr in the leading role of a local production of “Earnest,” is sued by him for the cost of the trousers he wore in the show. Joyce counter-sues, claiming he was owed money for tickets Carr had sold. (Joyce won, Carr lost.)
Other characters are Cecily and Gwendolen, names not only of the women we meet but characters in “Earnest.” Nadya is Lenin’s helpmeet wife; Bennett is Carr’s manservant who informs his employer of the latest news and views.
For a play of such scope, one that emphasizes character and ideas over narrative and emotions, it could not be easy to keep so many balls in the air at once. But playwright/director Patrick Marber fears not. He has his cast speak with a light touch, not taking even the most serious speeches seriously. With movement by Polly Bennett and a fragmented, book-filled set by Tim Hatley that expands the characters’ struggles, the production is paced like a vaudeville show.
Tom Hollander is endearing as Carr. Though not Stoppard’s description of him as “elegant” (he’s more impish and jolly), he nevertheless strides through the evening like a puppeteer, controlling moods and manners.
Peter McDonald is a myopic Joyce, a bit addled but you can sense the genius in him. Dan Butler is a solid Lenin and Patrick Kerr a sly rebel as Bennett. Opal Alladin is a workhorse Nadya, as no-nonsense as Sara Topham’s Cecily and Scarlett Strallen’s Gwendolen, both shakers and movers.
But the evening belongs to Seth Numrich’s Tzara. A dominant presence, enthusiastic to the edge of hysteria, Numrich weaves through the action, reflecting Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness writing, parodying Lenin’s zealousness and discussing art with Carr. (How prescient of Stoppard to have Tzara say, “Words are taken for opposite facts, opposite ideas.”)
“Travesties” lightheartedly deals with issues of war and politics, sex and memory. But art is its true subject. “It is the duty of the artist to jeer and howl and belch,” says Tzara. Without the artist, “man would be a coffee mill,” eating at one end, grinding in the middle, defecating at the other end. When former soldier Carr asks Joyce, “And what did you do in the Great War?” Joyce says, “I wrote ‘Ulysses.’ What did you do?”
--David A. Rosenberg
May 2, 2018