By Donna Herman
Don’t be afraid of Tom Stoppard and miss the wonderful revival of Travesties that the Roundabout Theatre has brought over from London. Across the pond, director Patrick Marber’s lauded production at the Chocolate Factory got raves and transferred to the West End. The Roundabout has snagged the production, and its star Tom Hollander, for the first revival of Travesties on Broadway in 42 years.
I know, I know, you’ve always heard that Stoppard is a wordy intellectual, and nobody can understand his plays. Or that he’s an unfeeling intellectual and his plays are merely cerebral and boring. Well, I will give you that he is a very, very, very, smart man. And he likes to grapple with big questions and themes. And he does love language. But often, and certainly in Travesties, he does it with wit, humor and through the lens of the absurd. And for good measure he throws in some vaudeville and musical numbers. There’s also a whole jaw-dropping scene done in the form of a limerick. Kudos to the ensemble on that one! As an actor myself, the thought of 5 actors getting the lines down, in the correct rhythm without making it seem like you’re reciting from a book, makes me break into a sweat.
You don’t need to know a lot to enjoy this entertaining and thought-provoking piece of theater. It’s that this is a play about memory, art, revolution and OK, a little history. Our narrator is Henry Carr (Tom Hollander), a real person who was a young British soldier in WWI. He was wounded, captured by the Germans and released in a prisoner-of-war exchange in Switzerland. Where he ended up in Zurich as a Consul in the diplomatic office in 1917. Also in Zurich during WWI, were three other historical figures. The novelist James Joyce (Peter McDonald), the communist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin (Dan Butler), and one of the founders of the Dada movement, Tristan Tzara (Seth Numrich).
The play takes place in two places and two times, both in Zurich. In the apartment of Henry Carr both in 1917, and in the unspecified present where he still lives. And in 1917, in the public library where all three historical figures gather regularly to work. This is really Carr’s story. He tells us the story both as an old man remembering the events, and as a young man living them. And reliving them repeatedly as he remembers the details differently. Tom Hollander gives a tour de force performance as Carr, going from 85 to 25 and back again convincingly with only his voice, a dressing gown and a hat. He is also able to navigate the tricky business of breaking the 4th wall, and then putting it up again seamlessly.
Of course, director Patrick Marber deserves credit for this too, as he does for the tight, brisk and specific production that embodies the Dada, revolutionary themes without muddying the waters. But never forget, this play is called Travesties for a reason. As the Playbill says in its guide to the play, “Characters in Travesties are travesties of the real people they are based on.” So, if James Joyce is your literary idol, don’t get your knickers in a twist that he speaks mostly in limericks.
Stoppard has said that the reason he thinks theater is the right medium for him is that dialogue is the only way he can argue with himself. He gives full scope to this personal pleasure in Travesties with thrilling results. Throughout the play various characters make marvelous pronouncements on the nature of “Art” with a capital “A.” But the scene between the diplomat Carr and the Dadaist Tzara is as juicy a contest of wit and wisdom on the subjects of art, war, and capitalism as you are ever likely to have the privilege of witnessing.
Truly, there are so many levels on which you can enjoy this work. I recommend that you strap yourself in and go for the ride. You won’t regret it.
Travesties by Tom Stoppard, Directed by Patrick Marber
WITH: Tom Hollander (Henry Carr); Seth Numrich (Tristan Tzara); Sara Topham (Cecily); Peter McDonald (James Joyce); Scarlett Strallen (Gwendolen); Opal Alladin (Nadya); Dan Butler (Lenin); Patrick Kerr (Bennett).
Set and Costume Design by Tim Hatley; Lighting Design by Neil Austin; Sound Design and Original Music by Adam Clark; Hair and Wig Design by David Brian Brown; Movement, Polly Bennett; Production Stage Manager, Bess Marie Glorioso. Limited Engagement through June 17, 2018 presented by Roundabout Theatre Company in Association with Chocolate Factory Productions and Sonia Friedman Productions at The American Airlines Theatre on Broadway, 227 West 42nd Street, NYC. Tickets for Travesties are available by calling 212.719.1300, online at roundabouttheatre.org, in person at any Roundabout box office: American Airlines Theatre Box office (227 West 42nd Street); The Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre (111 W 46th Street) and Studio 54 (254 West 54th Street); or by visiting StubHub, The Premier Secondary Ticketing Partner of Roundabout. Ticket prices range from $49-$149. For groups of 10 or more please call 212-719-9393 x 365 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.