Travesties Recounts Lenin, Joyce, and Tzara in a State of Swiss Bliss
Tom Stoppard's 1976 Tony-winning play returns to Broadway for the first time with Roundabout Theatre Company.
A poet, a novelist, and a revolutionary walk into a library in Switzerland. Which one will emerge having made the most profound impact on humanity? The jury is still out on that question, but Tom Stoppard gives us a lot of evidence to consider in the Broadway revival of Travesties, his play about the time when Tristan Tzara, James Joyce, and Vladimir Lenin all lived in Zurich. Hands down the smartest show currently on Broadway, this exhilarating revival is also heaps of fun.
That might come as a shock if you knew little else but the premise of the play. Set in 1917, at the height of World War I and on the eve of the Bolshevik Revolution, Travesties follows the crisscrossing paths of the granddaddy of Dada, Tzara (Seth Numrich), Ulysses author Joyce (Peter McDonald), and No. 1 commie Lenin (Dan Butler). Connecting them is the decidedly less famous (but no less real) British diplomat Henry Carr (Tom Hollander). Through choice or chance, all have found themselves in neutral Switzerland, which Carr describes as "the still center of the wheel of war." Carr is our narrator and his memory of this time strangely resembles the plot to Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest (Carr once played Algernon in a production organized by Joyce). We wonder if we can trust this senile stroll down memory lane, or (more distressingly) any firsthand account of history.
The subjectivity of history is a weighty topic that Stoppard presents with buoyant wit and joyous theatricality. Elements of British music hall and burlesque consistently disrupt the seriousness of the story, while the frame of Wilde's hilarious comedy of manners keeps us grinning. This play is nuts, but director Patrick Marber harnesses its peculiar logic in a production that is both enlightening and entertaining. Stoppard's dazzling language comes alive in the mouths of the actors, whether it is Hollander waxing poetic about the "mystical swissticality" of his surroundings or Numrich triple salchowing through the phrase "sundry sundered Sunday suits" to describe the consistently mismatched Joyce. The result is a play that constantly yields new surprises, like a massive painting in which you see something new at every angle.
The eight-person cast rises to the challenge of Stoppard's kaleidoscopic script with versatile performances. Numrich is practically acrobatic as Tzara, strutting across the stage like a self-satisfied cat. He pops out of closets and crawls across the floor while wearing a monocle and dandy suit fit for Wilde himself (wonderful period costumes by Tim Hatley). As Carr's butler, Patrick Kerr delivers a lucid explanation of the Russian Revolution as if he were describing breakfast. Playing characters named Cecily and Gwendolyn, Sara Topham and Scarlett Strallen perform a delightfully fraught rendition of the unhappy tea party from Earnest, all in the form of a Gallagher & Sheen routine. The spritely Hollander proves to be the ideal narrator of this lunacy, his eyes aglow with wonder and mischief.
Tim Hatley's set is as surprising and multilayered as the play itself. Piled high with books, it represents the Zurich library, but also the accumulated wealth of human knowledge, cloistered in the mountains yet surrounded by danger. Sound designer Adam Clark creates the distant sound of Howitzers in one of the quieter moments. More often, he noisily collaborates with lighting designer Neil Austin to convey Stoppard's narrative with maximum clarity: Carr tends to repeat himself, so whenever a scene jumps back, we hear a bell and see a flash of light, signifying a new round in this intellectual boxing match.
As is often the case with Stoppard, some of the most thrilling scenes take the form of debates: about the structure of society, the causes of war, and the purpose of art. "The odd thing about revolution is that the further left you go politically the more bourgeois they like their art," Tzara remarks — and there is a strange concord in taste between the philistine bourgeois Carr and the firebrand Bolshevik Lenin. But is it really that odd? These men believe that artists ought to perform a specific social function, just as a mechanic or mail-carrier does. This contrasts highly with Tzara's idea of art as the ultimate tool for social disruption. Then there is Wilde, whose person is absent but whose spirit is ever-present, and who once wrote, "All art is quite useless."
It is impossible to say what any of these men would have made of Travesties, but I suspect that despite their proud ideologies, they would have trouble resisting Stoppard's intoxicating blend of intelligence and frivolity. Stoppard packs a huge amount of content into multiple layers of form, ensuring that there's always something important to ponder without ever making the show feel ponderous. Travesties is a play in which play is as crucial as any big idea.