"The Importance of Being Stoppard"
Farce, high comedy, verbal pyrotechnics, and even dance and music mix delectably with volubly and voluminously recited ideas on art and political philosophy in Tom Stoppard’s Travesties, now being revived at the Roundabout’s American Airlines Theatre.
This pitch-perfectly acted version, originally staged at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory under Patrick Marber’s brilliant direction, includes that production’s star, Tom Hollander, repeating his Olivier-nominated performance as Henry Carr. John Wood, who originated the role, won the Best Actor Tony for 1975-1976; given Hollander’s already being in the running for this season’s other awards, I can’t think of a stronger candidate for at least a nomination.
Stoppard’s 1974 play, which won the 1975-1976 Tony for Best Play, manages the rare feat of being both intellectually stimulating, visually appealing, and hilariously funny. Its premise is the enactment of the befuddled memories of the elderly Carr, recalling his days as British consul in Zurich, Switzerland, half a century earlier, in 1917, during World War I.
We don’t meet Carr, though, until after a prologue-like scene set in the Zurich Public Library in 1917, where Stoppard introduces 1) the freethinking Romanian poet Tristan Tzara (Seth Numrich), a cofounder of the radical Dada movement, seeking to overthrow conventional notions of art; 2) Irish novelist James Joyce (Peter McDonald), writing his linguistically path-breaking novel, Ulysses; and 3) the Russian Bolshevik leader, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known as Lenin (Dan Butler), seeking (with his wife, Nadya [Opal Alladin]) a way to sneak back into Russia. If you don’t have a chance to brush up on who these people were, the program offers helpful highlights.
Using the historically coincidental presence of these political and artistic revolutionaries in neutral Switzerland as his inspiration, Stoppard, with old Carr’s erratic memory as his filter and the Zurich library as common ground, imagines what might have happened had their paths crossed at this crucial moment in modern history. Carr loves to pontificate on his familiarity with these celebrated men, regardless of the real Carr’s having met only Joyce.
Most of the action is a flashback showing how the aged Carr remembers things. When he appears as his younger self, the play focuses on something that actually did happen. This is Carr’s performance as Algernon (“the other one,” he says when he can’t remember the name) in an amateur production presented by Joyce of Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Carr, in fact, was involved in a law suit with Joyce over what he paid for his costumes.
Wilde’s play serves as the framework for Carr’s memories (thus offering one reason for the title Travesties), in which his sister, Sophie (Sara Topham), is transmogrified into a librarian named Cecily, while the beautiful young woman serving as Joyce’s amanuensis is given the name Gwendolen (Scarlett Strallen).
Carr and Tzara, who has a romance with Gwen, become the equivalents of Algie and Jack; Lenin and his wife the alternatives of Dr. Chasuble and Miss Prism; Carr’s butler, Bennett (Patrick Kerr), a stand-in for Earnest’s Merriman and Lane; and a manuscript mix-up a substitute for Wilde’s handbag.
Being a play based on faulty memories, the action often stops to rewind in “time slips” as a bell rings and a scene is redone from a different perspective, much as David Ives later did in one of the one-acts constituting his All in the Timing.
Stoppard, born in Czechoslovakia, but nonetheless one of most awesome word magicians in the English language, uses a dizzying array of poetic and prosaic devices, including puns, alliteration, rhymes, literary quotations, limericks, historical writings, epigrams, and even vaudeville routines to tickle your ears and keep your head buzzing.
On a couple of occasions, the characters burst into delightfully executed song or dance (Polly Bennett is credited with “movement”), a highlight being an extended duologue between Cecily and Gwendolen set to the rhythm and tune of the famous old “Mr. Gallagher and Mr. Shean” vaudeville routine. A snippet :
CECILY: Oh, dear Miss Carr, oh dear Miss Carr,
Please remain exactly where you are
I beg you don’t get up—
GWEN (to Bennett): I think we’ll need another cup—
Pray sit down, Miss Carruthers . . .
CECILY: . . . So kind of you, Miss Carr.
Even with so much stage time taken up with philosophical debates about the meaning of art, the role of the artist in society, Marxist theory, revolutionary politics, and the like, you’re never quite sure just where on the spectrum of ideas Stoppard himself belongs. You just listen, catch as much as you can, and then, perhaps, go back again, prepared to pick up what you missed the first time around.
Given the all-around skill and charm of this physically and verbally dexterous company—which I assumed was all-English until discovering its actors hail from England, Canada, and the USA—Stoppard’s potentially challenging comedy is as light as a soufflé and perfectly accessible.
Marber has staged it dynamically, with speed, inventiveness, and variety, using a versatile set by Tim Hatley (who also did the lovely period costumes) that serves as both the library and Carr’s home. Its solid sections are separated with spaces that allow the actors to race in and out of their interstices as well as through the very solid doors. A closet-like structure upstage center provides surprise appearances while its upper part can be turned into a lectern or other scenic space. Neil Austin’s lighting and Adam Cork’s sound design and original music share the same creative spirit infusing everything in the production.
No fault can be found with any of the actors, each of whom has aria-like moments of exuberant excellence. McDonald, Butler, and Numrich are lookalike avatars of Joyce, Lenin, and Tzara, especially the first two. Numrich, on the other hand, demonstrates distinctively graceful physicality as the foppish, monocle-wearing Tzara. Alladin’s Nadya, who speaks many lines in Russian, is as imposing as Strallen and Topham are exquisitely appealing, while Kerr’s Bennet is every inch the snobbish, self-consciously superior servingman. Finally, Hollander’s Carr offers a tour de force of verbal clarity, comic timing, and physical expressivity.
I’m sorry I didn’t see Travesties when it first played on Broadway 43 years ago. And, aware of its difficulties, I was afraid its revival would prove something of a slog. What Marber and company have pulled off, however, makes a travesty of my reservations. Do yourself a favor and see it, not four decades from now.
American Airlines Theatre
227 W. 42nd St. NYC
Through June 17