Travesties, which won a Best Play Tony in its first Broadway production in 1975, is Tom Stoppard at his most dazzlingly, or perhaps dizzyingly, Stoppardian: layers deep in literary and historical references both overt and opaque, theatrically inventive, playing with constructs of narrative and storytelling, slipping in and out of time, posing intense philosophical questions about the nature of art and the meaning of life—and did I mention frequently side-splittingly funny?
If you find Stoppard too talky or overly intellectual, you’ll appreciate director Patrick Marber’s quick pacing and deft touch with the exposition. Though if you have no preexisting knowledge of the period, historical figures, and cross-referenced texts, you’ll get quite a history lesson but may miss some of the layers in the jokes. (It’s in fact so dense in wordplay, some of which, in Marber’s direction, goes by so incredibly fast, that there are times—like the scene done almost entirely in limericks—that the humor can be easier to appreciate on the page than the stage.) You’re warned up front, in a prologue presented by the central figure Henry Carr’s doddering and senile older self, that memory is unreliable. That point is underscored by the tendency of scenes to time-slip and repeat themselves with variation, so it doesn’t so much matter if you miss a beat now and again.
But for a Stoppard fan, it’s a delight: so rich, so dense, so silly, and paced so superbly by Marber and a uniformly excellent cast that you hardly realize how very much information is packed in.
The play jumps off from one massive coincidence and one entertaining footnote of history. The coincidence: in 1917, in the thick of World War I, Irish writer James Joyce, Romanian Dada provocateur Tristan Tzara, and Bolshevik leader V. I. Lenin—all revolutionaries in their respective fields—all resided in Zurich, in neutral Switzerland. They came by different routes and for different reasons, and almost certainly didn’t actually know each other (though Lenin did live across the street from the Dada hotbed Cabaret Voltaire), but they were all there: Joyce working on Ulysses, Tzara demolishing art in the name of art, and Lenin planning revolution. The footnote: while in Zurich, Joyce founded a theatre troupe called the English Players, which produced Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest; the leading role of Algernon was played by a British diplomatic staffer named Henry Carr, who would go on to sue Joyce, after the production, to recoup the cost of trousers he purchased to wear as his costume—and lose. (Joyce countersued for the cost of tickets Carr had promised to sell and won.)
Stoppard throws The Importance of Being Earnest (especially its two female leads, Gwendolen and Cecily) into a blender with the aesthetic and political opinions of his famous characters, the unreliable memories of Henry Carr, and a branch of the Zurich Public Library to come up with a play that does all of the following, usually two and three of them at a time: reprise almost entire scenes of Wilde (sometimes set to music), puncture arguments about the significance of the Artist versus Art, create Dada poetry, opine on fashions in men’s trousers, make Ulysses sexy, interrogate whether one person really has the power to change history, and engage in serious analysis of the Marxist view of history and whether the Industrial Revolution was its apotheosis or an exception.
As Henry Carr, Tom Hollander (who was nominated for an Olivier Award in London for the same role) anchors the play; Carr is often a straight man to the adorably flamboyant Tzara (Seth Numrich), the bombastic Lenin (Dan Butler), and the thin-skinned Joyce (Peter McDonald), but he finds the balance of allowing Carr to be thoroughly ridiculous (at times a caricature of the English colonial gentleman) but at the same time deeply human, and the nexus around which the play’s moral questions revolve. As Bennett, the butler with revolutionary sympathies, Patrick Kerr is the even straighter man to Hollander’s straight man, and he makes an art out of not reacting. I also found Sara Topham’s Cecily delectable. She is a librarian who doesn’t have a lot to say beyond “Ssssh!” in the first act, but her Act Two includes a bit of unpredictably funny Russian translation, a dance number, and perhaps the play’s most over-the-top comic scene, comprising her entire friendship with Gwendolen (Scarlet Strallen) from polite introduction to proclamations of undying affection to a cut direct, all of it done to the tune of an old music hall tune and incorporating swaths (again) of Earnest—and Topham does it all with gusto, while never losing her librarian’s facade of primness.
It’s a play I’ve always adored but rarely seen, and there’s nothing quite like a production of an old favorite that’s even more inventive in real life than it is in one’s imagination. Marber’s production makes Travesties more of a whirlwind than ever, but considering the tumults in history, art, and politics that it represents, a whirlwind is entirely appropriate.