It was already clear that Mr. Stoppard was a dramatist of a singular intellectual stripe, with his academic antics and cascading epigrams, suggesting a genius prankster run amok in an Oxbridge library. But nothing prepared his audience for “Travesties,” which made comic hay of the writings of three of the most eminent and complex minds of Western civilization. (Make that four, since the play also borrows copiously from Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest.”)
When the show transferred to Broadway in 1975, it won both the Tony and New York Drama Critics’ Circle awards for best play. But theatergoers were walking out on it in exasperated droves and writing angry letters to The New York Times, which had happily endorsed the production.
The current “Travesties” — which originated at the Menier Chocolate Factory in 2016, before transferring to the West End — is the product of several subsequent decades of Mr. Stoppard’s revision and condensation. (If I tried to track those changes for you, I’d wind up as addled as poor Carr.)
I would venture that this latest incarnation is the clearest and surely one of the liveliest on record. It should prove ridiculously entertaining for anyone with even a passing knowledge of its central characters, and a stroll through the groves of Wikipedia should offer adequate preparation for anyone else.
Because what makes “Travesties” so deeply engaging — and hilarious and touching — isn’t its flashy erudition but its author’s rapt fascination with the workings of the human mind and its enduring relationship with art. Mr. Stoppard possesses the enthusiasm of an eternal student, both arrogant about what he knows and humble about what he doesn’t.
This sensibility is filtered through the backward-looking perspective of good old Carr (based on a real person), a thoroughly middle-class British consul who claims to have been in Zurich at a magic moment when Joyce (Peter McDonald), Tzara (Seth Numrich) and Lenin (Dan Butler) were all in residence. Carr is in his dressing gown and his dotage when we first meet him, thinking up ways to transform this improbable slice of history into a book.
Joyce — who is working on his novel “Ulysses” — and Lenin — nearing the end of his exile from Russia — can be found in the Zurich library, along with Lenin’s wife, Nadya (Opal Alladin). Tzara, chief exponent of the art of poetic anarchy, is there, too, because he has a crush on Joyce’s assistant, Gwendolen (Scarlett Strallen). Overseeing, and regularly shushing, the others is a librarian, one Cecily Cardew (Sara Topham).
Gwendolen and Cecily are the names of the rivalrous heroines of Wilde’s “Earnest.” And much of the dialogue in “Travesties” takes its cues from that masterpiece of elegant absurdism. You see, Joyce is involved in a local production of “Earnest.” He recruits Carr to appear in it as Algernon. The collaboration ends badly, because of an altercation over the cost of Carr’s costumes.
The elderly Carr doffs his bathrobe to become his younger self to participate in his encounters with the others, who also include his manservant, Bennett (Patrick Kerr), who harbors revolutionary sympathies. Many of the scenes are enacted in several variations, as history stops and starts and never exactly repeats itself.
Our leading men face off in duels of words about the purpose and nature of art. Carr, a Gilbert and Sullivan fan, takes the conventional bourgeois view of it as a collection of worthy monuments. Lenin has no use for art, though his wife describes him as being unnervingly moved by a Beethoven sonata. Tzara, the Dadaist, is a desecrater of traditional art, and is seen cutting up a sonnet by Shakespeare into a bowler hat, the better to randomly reassemble its words.
The hat belongs to Joyce, who later pulls a rabbit out of it. That bit of magic may give you a clue as to where the playwright’s sympathies lie.
Abstract considerations are rendered with an extravagantly theatrical zeal that never flags. The first-rate design team includes Tim Hatley (costumes and a set that suggests a ransacked library of the mind) Neil Austin (lighting) and Adam Cork (sound and music).
The cast couldn’t be much better. Among the singular pleasures they provide: Mr. Numrich’s physically ferocious Tzara acting out the Darwinian chain of evolution; Mr. McDonald’s Joyce talking (and singing) in Irish limericks; Mr. Butler’s straight-faced modeling a blond wig as a disguise for Lenin’s return to Russia; Ms. Alladin singing an ode to the motherland in Russian; and Ms. Strallen and Ms. Topham blissfully reinterpreting the tea party scene from “Earnest” to the tune of the vaudeville ditty “Mr. Gallagher and Mr. Shean.”
Then there is Mr. Hollander, who was so delectably vicious in HBO’s “The Night Manager.” Here, standing amid a scattered wreckage of books and loose papers, he is both an affecting emblem of bewilderment and a tower of preening vanity. And he leads us with seamless clarity not only through his character’s segues between youth and old age but also through the decomposing labyrinth that is Carr’s mind.
“Take no notice,” he says companionably, after describing the Lenin he remembers as a gnomic, anemic blond. It will, he reassures us, “all come out in the wash, that’s the art of it.” What emerges from the churning wash of “Travesties” is one of the sweetest, sauciest and strangest defenses of art ever to land on a stage.
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