Here are the facts that Stoppard started with: Russian statesman and political theorist Vladimir Lenin, Irish writer James Joyce and Romanian surrealist poet Tristan Tzara, revolutionaries all, were together in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1917 as W.W. I was coming to a close. However they were not the bold face celebrities that they later became and whether paths crossed is open to debate. Also there at that time was British civil servant Henry Carr who appeared in The English Players’ production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, whose business manager was Joyce. As a matter of record, Carr sued Joyce for the cost of a pair of pants he bought for his role as Algernon, and Joyce countersued for money owning on the tickets Carr was to sell but never turned in. Joyce also sued him for defamation of character over remarks Carr made due to his refusal to reimburse him for his costume.
The play is narrated by Carr through his memories as an doddering 80-year-old man, returning him (and us) to his days as a 30-year-old resident of Zurich. As such he is unreliable, altering his story as he narrates his life, with “time turns” allowing us to see the same scene in an alternate form. Travesties is set in both his apartment as well as the then new Zurich Public Library simultaneously, while scenes from The Importance of Being Earnest keep intruding into his story literally as well as in satirical form with Tzara as Ernest Worthing, Joyce as Lady Bracknell and Carr playing his original stage role of Algernon Moncrieff. Shades of Oscar Wilde, his sister named Gwendolen is Joyce’s secretary as he writes his novel Ulysses, while the librarian who is helping Lenin on his book is named Cecily. Gwendolen and Cecily also play out the breakfast scenes from Wilde’s play around the tea table. A knowledge of Wilde’s comedy is mandatory.
Aside from scenes from Wilde’s drawing room comedy, Travesties also devolves into vaudeville, song and dance. In addition, there is a great deal of name dropping of both famous and forgotten creative people like writer/thinkers Karl Marx, Leo Tolstoy and LaRochefoucauld and surrealistic artists Hans Arp, Hugo Ball and Picabia. In the first act, Joyce is given to spouting limericks at the drop of a hat. A high point of the evening is reached near the end of the second act when Gwendolen and Cecily sing their repartee with new lyrics to the tune of the patter song, “Mr. Gallagher and Mr. Shean,” with Joyce accompanying them on the guitar. The humor is at times intoxicating while at others sophomoric, at times both: “Wars are fought to make the world safe for artists.” “Art is absurdly overrated by artists, which is understandable, but what is strange is that it is absurdly overrated by everyone else.” This heady brew of ideas and history is challenging for both the initiated and the uninitiated.
The set design by British designer Tim Hatley is serviceable but cluttered: in overlapping form it includes Carr’s apartment, the Zurich Public Library, a set for Earnest, and also turns into a railway station. The walls of the set suggest both a symbolic archive as well as a teeming metropolis. Hatley’s elegant Edwardian Era costumes are more successful. For a play that has many shifts of mood and style, lighting designer Neil Austin had his work cut out for him. Adam Cork is responsible for both the original music as well as the sound design, although he can hardly be blamed for the difficulty in understanding the various accents used by the characters.
Marber has helped his cast to deep perception of their characters, with Hollander’s Henry Carr and Peter McDonald as James Joyce held over from the London production. Hollander (who previously appeared on Broadway as Lord Alfred Douglas in David Hare’s The Judas Kiss) proves himself to be a consummate clown. His Henry Carr is a delightful and original creation as very little is known about the real person. Much is asked of McDonald (making his Broadway debut) as the young Irish writer: speaking with an Irish accent he must spout seemingly spontaneous limericks, appear as Lady Bracknell, sing and dance, play the guitar, and toss off puns and quotes with the best of them. Dan Butler’s Lenin is a more serious personage carrying the weight of the Russian Revolution on his shoulders. Seth Numrich as surrealist agitator Tristan Tzara is another clown role, tossing off one-liners as well as poems whenever he appears, as well as morphing into Wilde’s hero, Ernest Worthing, on many occasions.
Sara Topham and Scarlett Strallen as the amusingly severe though equally susceptible Cecily and the romantic and impressionable Gwendolen, respectively, are each charming in their own way. Topham who played Gwendolen in the Roundabout’s revival of The Importance of Being Earnest is about the most attractive librarian you can imagine as Cecily, while Strallen as this show’s Gwendolen seems to the manner born for drawing room comedy. Opal Alladin adds fine support as Lenin’s wife Nadya, both being required to sing in Russian and narrate his story. Last but not least is Patrick Kerr as the unflappable butler Bennett, apparently playing a double game as a spy for the Bolsheviks.
Like Joyce’s Ulysses, Tom Stoppard’s Travesties will seem totally obscure to those unprepared, delicious for those who are. A challenging comedy of ideas on art, politics and memory, Travesties will prove caviar to the general but intoxicating theater for those who are disposed to its intricacies. Tom Hollander and company do a superb job of a play that does not easily give up its secrets. This is a literary play that is either completely opaque or as obvious as an open book depending on your preparation. This is not a play to be seen lightly.
Travesties (through June 17, 2018)
Chocolate Factory Productions & Sonia Friedman Productions
Roundabout Theatre Company
American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-719-1300 or visit http://www.roundabouttheatre.org
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes including one intermission