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Tom Hewitt and Sam Waterston in Travesties
(Photo © T. Charles Erickson)
In the program for The Long Wharf Theatre's supremely silly and lovable treatment of Tom Stoppard's supremely silly and lovable Travesties, the playwright notes, "I was interested in showing off. I was having a good time, and I had certain arguments that I enjoyed conducting with the other half of myself about the role of the artist." That's as accurate a description of Stoppard's modus operandi at the onset of his brilliant career as anyone might come up with. His arguing with himself part is pertinent because, while the contending goes on for some time, there may be no resolutions reached. The "showing off" part is germane because there isn't any question that Stoppard, for whom English is a second language, is hell-bent on parading his mastery not only of idiom and pun in his adopted tongue but also his take on English culture and the multitude of influences upon it.

As anyone knows who's ever watched a precocious child exhibit his talents, there's a point at which such a display becomes tedious and the observer, at first amused and impressed, wishes for surcease. That's what occurs during Gregory Boyd's treatment of the nearly three-hour 1974 hyper-comedy Travesties, in which James Joyce (Don Stephenson), Dada developer Tristan Tzara (Tom Hewitt) and Vladimir Ilych Ulyanov, better known as Lenin (Gregor Paslawsky), ostensibly cross paths in 1916 at a Zurich library and at the home of British consul Henry Carr (Sam Waterston). Meanwhile, whatever point Stoppard may be trying to make about the nature of art is never clearly made. As the inspired crack-pottery gathers momentum, one begins to wish that Stoppard could be stoppered.

That last phrase, folks, is an example of the wordplay that creeps into a reviewer's head as he gets caught up in the mentality of a celebrated dramatist who has a library shelf of James Joyce and Oscar Wilde under his belt. Travesties is a memory play. In brief, the doddering Carr (an actual figure who knew and eventually sued Joyce) tries with questionable success to remember precisely what transpired during the World War I days that he spent in neutral Switzerland after being invalided out of battle. According to his inaccurate recollections, he was privy to conversations -- a few of them heard in at least three versions -- during which Joyce, Wilde, and Lenin locked horns over art and politics. The piece contains some music hall and vaudeville turns, not the least of which is a revamped version of the old Gallagher and Shean signature number for characters named Gwendolyn (Cheryl Lynn Bowers) and Cecily (Maggie Lacey).

Yes, Oscar Wilde fans, you've twigged to Stoppard's primary focus of dramaturgical legerdemain: He has taken The Importance of Being Earnest as a template to be turned upside down. That's part of what he means by calling his play Travesties. (Some knowledge of the Wilde warhorse is a big help here.) There are times when Henry Carr and Tristan Tzara carry on with Gwendolyn and Cecily as Algernon Moncrieff and John Worthing do with their own Gwendolyn and Cecily. The ladies even engage in a pie fight as an extension of their combative encounters in Wilde's drawing-room farrago. Moreover, Lenin has the line "To lose one revolution is unfortunate; to lose two would look like carelessness." (The allusion is to Lady Bracknell's comment about losing one's parents.)

Since Stoppard's work is over the top, director Boyd's over-the top version is a fair and often hilarious response to the material. So are the contributions of set designer Neil Patel (a heightened drawing-room), costume designer Judith Dolan (the men's smoking jackets and the ladies' colorful lingerie), lighting designer Rui Rita (flashing lights), and sound designer John Gromada. To underscore the pie-throwing sequence, Gromada splices in the music that Ernie Kovacs used for The Nairobi Trio.

Sam Waterston's break from Law & Order is a multiple fracture; here, he's so far from Jack McCoy that he couldn't even reach the earnest lawyer by BlackBerry. Instead, he amusingly plays the old and addled Henry Carr with a tremelo and a tremor. Towards the beginning of the play, Waterston masterfully delivers a 10-minute monologue that's one of Stoppard's masterstrokes; the resourceful actor attacks Carr's younger self with Wildean flair. As for Tom Hewitt, his Tristan Tzara exuberance should be bottled for commercial consumption. (Hewitt speaks what's supposed to be French with a Romanian accent, and he's a stitch. Stephen Gabis is the hard-working dialect coach.) Don Stephenson gives James Joyce a head-to-toe twinkle, while Maggie Lacey and Cheryl Lynn Bowers are daisy-fresh as Stoppard's variation on Wilde's bosom buddies. As the Lenins, Gregor Paslawsky and Isabel Keating bring beams of light to the man's revolutionary darkness, and Graeme Malcolm makes a sly butler.

A special treat for Stoppard fans who revisit Travesties now is noticing how some of the play's themes are treated in his earlier and later works. Footnote-to-history Carr is a version of the glorified title characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead; Oscar Wilde appears as a major figure in The Invention of Love; and the playwright's obsession with Russian history is further pursued in The Coast of Utopia (soon to be seen in New York). Stoppard is like a dog worrying a bone -- a funny bone. Sometimes he worries too much, but never without enormous appeal.

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