In the first scene of Tom Stoppard’s “Travesties,” the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, the Irish novelist James Joyce, and the Romanian avant-garde artist Tristan Tzara are all sitting in a library in Zurich, Switzerland in 1917, when Tzara takes a manuscript he’s just finished writing, cuts it with a pair of scissors into small strips of paper, and sticks the pieces of paper into his hat. Then he empties his hat onto the table and reads some of the pieces.
It’s exactly the sort of thing that Tzara, one of the early twentieth century founders of the Dada “anti-art” movement, would do. It’s also more or less the same approach that Stoppard takes in his brilliant, clever and mind-boggling collage of a play.
Luckily, the first Broadway revival of Stoppard’s 1974 play turns this challenging exercise in virtuosity into an often-hilarious entertainment, with lively direction by Patrick Marber and a spot-on eight-member cast led by the terrific Tom Hollander. This production of “Travesties,” which originated at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory and is running at Roundabout’s American Airlines Theater through June 17th, ultimately can even provide some enlightenment, if you let it.
The three historical figures in Stoppard’s play actually lived in Zurich in 1917, as did the far more obscure Henry Carr (portrayed by Hollander) whom the playwright discovered from a mention in Richard Ellman’s biography of James Joyce. Carr, a wounded veteran of World War I and a British official stationed in Switzerland, had performed as Algernon in a production in Zurich of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” for which Joyce served as business manager — and then sued Joyce for the price of a pair of trousers he bought as part of his costume. This surreal historical nugget is depicted in “Travesties.” It also apparently inspired Stoppard to graft the lovers’ plot from Wilde’s play onto his own: The male historical characters use Wildean subterfuge in pursuit of female characters (as in Wilde) named Cecily and Gwendolyn, although here they are librarians. That might be enough to throw some audiences off, but that’s not all. Stoppard also injects leaping heaps of wordplay, an avalanche of lightning-quick allusions (I thought I detected a reference to the TV show “Jeopardy”), un-translated sentences in French and Russian, line after line of hysterical non-sequiturs and just plain nonsense – or rather, erudite nonsense – and all manner of little throwaway parodies. The most delicious of these ridicules pretentious memoirs about the famous. We see Carr both in 1917 and years later as an old man engaging in what he admits to being “senile reminiscence.” A sample:
“To those of us who knew him, Joyce’s genius was never in doubt,” Carr says and goes on at some length, before concluding: “in short, a complex personality, an enigma, a contradictory spokesman for the truth, an obsessive litigant and yet an essentially private man who wished his total indifference to public notice to be universally recognized – in short a liar and a hypocrite, a tight-fisted, sponging, fornicating drunk…”
Of Lenin, he recalls: “To be in his presence was to be aware of a complex personality, enigmatic, magnetic, but not, I think astigmatic…”
To this whirlwind of verbal gymnastics, director Marber adds some physical mayhem – singing and dancing (to Adam Cork’s delightful original music), and a farcical pace just short of pratfalls. All of this is executed flawlessly by a cast that includes Seth Numrich, best-known as the earnest young lead in “War Horse,” here transformed into the anarchic lusty Tzara; and Dan Butler who came to fame as Bulldog on the TV series Frazier, here a striking dead ringer for Lenin.
Amid all this silliness, we get a solid sense of the historical figures, although often through a scrim of playfulness. Joyce (Peter McDonald) plays the guitar and recites limericks – which is why Carr is confused about whether Joyce is from the Irish city of Limerick or Dublin.
The key to appreciating the pile-on in “Travesties,” I think, is to avoid feeling the need to understand it all. Remarkably, despite the comic chaos, several serious points do emerge. Threaded through “Travesties” is a robust and provocative debate about the meaning and function of art and artists, with each character articulately representing a clear point of view
Lenin’s: Art is a critique of society or it is nothing!
Joyce’s: As an artist, naturally I attach no importance to the swings and roundabouts of political history.
Tzara’s: The difference between being a man and being a coffee-mill is art. But the difference has become smaller and smaller and smaller. Art created patrons and was corrupted. It began to celebrate the ambitions and acquisitions of the pay-master. The artist has negated himself.
There is more to life than art, though, and more to Stoppard’s concerns in “Travesties,” which ends in a surprisingly touching scene that provokes thoughts about history and memory, and the travesties of time.
Written by Tom Stoppard; original music by Adam Cork
Directed by Patrick Marber
Scenic Design by Tim Hatley; Costume Design by Tim Hatley; Lighting Design by Neil Austin; Sound Design by Adam Cork; Hair and Wig Design by David Brian Brown; Makeup Design by Brian Strumwasser
Cast Tom Hollander, Peter McDonald, Seth Numrich, Dan Butler, Scarlett Strallen, Sara Topham, Opal Alladin and Patrick Kerr
Running time: Two hours and 30 minutes, including intermission.