James Urbaniak, Everett Quinton, and
Christian Coulson in Travesties
(© T. Charles Erickson)
James Urbaniak, Everett Quinton, and
Christian Coulson in Travesties
(© T. Charles Erickson)
Tom Stoppard's Travesties, now at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, comes across as the greatest college-sophomore comedy sketch ever written, with high-class spoofing of all sorts of information and philosophical rumination to which intelligent students have been exposed in their first couple of campus years. For the work to have maximum impact, it requires extremely the sort of stylish handling that it's getting under Sam Buntrock's superb direction.

The Travesties travesties are seen through the eyes and heard through the words of Henry Carr (James Urbaniak), a British diplomat. Initially, he's discovered reminiscing about his earlier Zurich posting, when he claims to have been chummy with no less than Russian politician Vladimir Lenin (Demosthenes Chrysan), Irish author James Joyce (Fred Arsenault), and Dada-movement originator Tristan Tzara (Christian Coulson).

Stripping off the old-man garb, Carr becomes the young diplomat, entertaining these notables in a well-appointed flat overseen by butler Bennett (Everett Quinton) and visited by Carr's younger sister Gwendolyn (Susannah Flood) and librarian Cecily (Sara Topham), to whom he's attracted. That library is viewed frequently when Carr's digs are pulled to the wings. There, in both Carr's imagination and Stoppard's, the historical figures are observed simultaneously using the facility.

As the characters mix and mingle -- their number swelled by Lenin's abiding wife Nadya (Lusia Strus)--they figure in routines that have Stoppard pitting notions like Tzara's art-for-art's-sake stance against Lenin's cry that all art must be applied to socialistic purposes.

He also gets laughs at Joyce's expense, depicting him as a pedant who consistently mismatches his coat and trousers while plowing through the creation of Ulysses. In a series of quick-cut sequences, Bennett gets to deliver pre-Great War, post-Great War and during Great War headlines -- and history is kidded.

Not for nothing has expert parodist Stoppard named the young women Cecily and Gwendolyn, from Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. He doesn't allow his farrago to conclude without replaying scenes from the Wilde masterpiece--with Carr and Tzara standing in for Jack Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff.

While full enjoyment of Travesties requires audiences on entering the theater to have at least some acquaintance with the matters being discussed, Buntrock has taken off much of the headiness through the lightness of his production, which features a clever and lovely David Farley set (he also designed the ideal costumes), adroitly lit by David Weiner.

In addition, Buntrock entices outstanding performances from his cast, all of whom keep up the demanding pace. He gets an especially fine one from Urbaniak, who gives a star performance as both the haughty young and possibly dotty old Carr.