Tom Stoppard’s Tony-winning 1974 play Travesties, stuffed thick as a English gentleman’s armchair, its ideas on art, war, patriotism and purposeful nonsense fashioned into a nonstop tourney of wit and erudition, has often been called a brainteaser, but brain tickler comes so much closer to the jubilant staging presented by Broadway’s Roundabout Theatre Company.
Directed by Patrick Marber and starring Tom Hollander, this Travesties arrives at Roundabout’s American Airlines Theatre following its well-received 2016 London staging, its mostly new cast missing not so much as a breath or a notion.
The play, which points to the luxurious density of Stoppard’s later masterworks Arcardia and The Coast of Utopia, launches with a hang-on-tight monologue delivered by Henry Carr (Hollander), an aging British consul whose first claim to literary immortality was a passing mention in James Joyce’s Ulysses (the second? Travesties, of course).
Here, Carr, a real-life figure, recalls, among other things, the court battle (again, real life) with Joyce that was as petty as it was personally stinging (and prompted Joyce’s nasty literary gibe): Carr had starred in (and helped finance) Joyce’s 1917 amateur production of The Importance of Being Earnest in Zurich, and squabbles over a pittance (and costumes) ended up on the dockets.
The elderly Carr, stooped and shrunken in a threadbare dressing gown, ambles his way through fitful memory to summon events leading up to the lawsuit, a shaggy dog tale that soon plays out on stage as historical characters – Joyce (Peter McDonald), the Bolshevik Vladimir Lenin (Dan Butler) and Dadaist poet Tristan Tzara (Seth Numrich) – cross paths in a farce that plays out largely in Carr’s drawing room, the Consul being the link that connects all the expats nestled in neutral Switzerland as the meat-grinder of World War I reaches its peak.
Among the many mirrorings of Wilde’s Earnest are Cecily (Sara Topham) and Gwendolen (Scarlett Strallen), the former being a librarian and ardent Leninist, the latter Carr’s sister and Joyce’s devoted patron. Who loves whom, and the measures they’ll take for the sake of romance or shared ambitions, reveal themselves over the course of sitting-room debates, trysts and the exhortations of one revolutionary or another.
“If Lenin didn’t exist,” sniffs Carr, “it would be unnecessary to invent him.” Yet here he is, shoveling his Bolshevik rhetoric even as he’s banished from Russia, insisting that art’s true purpose is as manifesto, a notion rebuffed by Joyce, who worships art as a recorder of history and ennobler of humankind, and the waggish fop Tzara, whose passion for the fully-intended irrationality and nonsense of Dada seems altogether logical amidst the insanity of the “mincing machine” slaughtering millions across Europe.
And if that summary suggests a didactic bore of an evening, Travesties is anything but, the farcical goings-on — secret identities, under-the-table orgasms — at constant, breakneck play on Tim Hatley’s paneled wood and book-stacked set (it occasionally doubles for a Zurich library). The cast certainly goes all in, even with the play’s more underwritten roles – Lenin and his sister Nadya (Opal Alladin), chiefly – and making the most of secondary parts (Patrick Kerr’s martini-dry butler Bennett). As Gwendolen and Cecily, Strallen and Topham shine in one of the play’s most delightful moments – a knock-off of the classic vaudeville comedy song “Mister Gallagher and Mister Shean,” here rewritten for the women and encapsulating, in all its oh-so-catchiness, a tiny plot all its own.
McDonald, a London transfer along with Hollander, is spot-on as the limerick-loving, always broke Joyce, and Numrich (best known to TV audiences for AMC’s Turn and Showtime’s Homeland) raises the play’s already high energy level with his every bound and twirl as the excitable and sympathetic Dadaist Tzara, whether he’s pantomiming the evolutionary ascent of man or reciting a paragraph of conversational “dadas.”
But this Travesties belongs first and foremost to Hollander, a stage actor widely known in Britain for TV roles (like Rev). Under Marber’s careful direction, Hollander takes Stoppard’s comically befuddled British consul into some unforeseen emotional terrain, never more moving than when Carr recalls the horror of the trenches and the patriotism of its fighters. If Hollander’s Carr can’t quite sway the cynical Tzara – and he can’t – no one can.