Even in Switzerland, art is a battlefield in Tom Stoppard's scintillating play.
Theater review by Adam Feldman
Watching Tom Stoppard’s devilishly clever Travesties is rather like solving a puzzle of the cryptic British crossword variety, whose intersecting clues are witty little games in and of themselves. Stoppard frames his 1974 play as the “senile reminiscence” of a doddering and unreliable narrator: a sartorially fussy English civil servant named Henry Carr (the marvelous Tom Hollander), who works in Zürich in 1917. There he crosses paths with several figures of historical note: modernist giant James Joyce (Peter McDonald), with whom he squabbles over a production of The Importance of Being Earnest; Dada provocateur Tristan Tzara (Seth Numrich), who cuts up sonnets with scissors and flings the pieces like confetti; and Bolshevik ideologue Vladimir Lenin (Dan Butler), who thinks art must be bent into a tool for social progress.
Time and Stoppard have taken scissors to Carr’s memories, which Travesties artfully reassembles in an olio of genres—farce, spy story, seminar, musical, history lesson, absurdist prank—with mixed-in orts of culture high and low: Shakespeare, a World War I soldiers’ song, a tie-in to T.S. Eliot, a tea scene that sets the hypersweet sniping of Earnest’s Gwendolen (Scarlett Strallen) and Cecily (Sara Topham)—conflated here with women from Carr’s life—to the tune of a 1920s Vaudeville ditty. The facets of Stoppard’s jewellike play are overwhelmingly, even ostentatiously brilliant; the Irish Joyce is introduced in a scene that is written as a series of limericks. Yet in Patrick Marber’s well-judged and high-spirited revival, which the director first staged in London in 2016 (with Hollander and McDonald), the result is inviting rather than snobbishly exclusive, and the structural and verbal dazzle are offset with subtle suggestions of elegy. Even if you can’t solve it all as you watch, it’s a pleasure to engage with a production that does Travesties full justice.
American Airlines Theatre (Broadway). By Tom Stoppard. Directed by Patrick Marber. With Tom Hollander. Running time: 2hrs 25mins. One intermission.