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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
And if I had to name the liveliest, most inventive and well worth seeing plays of the current New York Theater season, the revival of Stoppard's 1975 absurdist comedy, Travesties would make my top three.
Among Sir Stoppard's most ingenious borrowings were two insignificant characters from Shakespeare's Hamlet. He turned the pair into main characters and title characters for his first major play, Rosenccrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. (1967). Eight years later he used Henry Carr, an insignificant but real person mentioned in a biography of James Joyce into the central character of Travesties.
The reason for Carr, a British soldier in World War I and a minor government dignitary, being part of Joyce's life was that he and Joyce were in Zurich, Switzerland in 1917— Carr injured and captured by the Germans and paroled to Zurich; Joyce working on Ulysses but also heading an amateur theater company. His casting Carr as the lead in that company's production of The Importance of Being Earnest. Carr accepted because it looked like a good chance to indulge his penchant for fine clothes. But it all ended acrimoniously, with a lawsuit initiated by Carr and won by Joyce.
Joyce, still peeved about Carr's lawsuit, kept Carr's name from fading into total oblivion by making a character named Private Carr in Ulysses the symbol of the British oppression of Ireland. But it took Stoppard to not only make Carr the heart and soul of Travesties, but to cast-nap Joyce as well as several other eccentric Zurich residents who revolutionized politics and art— Lenin who led the Russian revolution, and the free thinker Tristan Tzara with his anti All art as usual Dada movement extended other social ills (for example, his still timely quote that "wars are fought for oil wells."
As if a madcap romp into the mind of the insignificant-made-significant narrator to recreate his meetings with these highly significant historic figures weren't enough, the cast includes characters borrowed from The Importance of Earnest and his own hilarious version of that play.
Perhaps Travesties wasn't one of Stoppard's most popular and frequently produced plays because to fully appreciate all these literary and historic references requires some familiarity with Stoppard's dramatis personae and Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. That said, this play's magnificent inventiveness can draw in someone who doesn't really understand it enough to love it. Case in point: Patrick Marber who was intrigued enough by a production he saw as a schoolboy, to start reading Stoppard and becoming an admirer and himself became a playwright ( Dealer's Choice& Closer). Yet if anyone had told him after his puzzling but memorable viewing of Travesties that he would one day direct it, he would have found it as wildly fantastic as some of that play's antics.
But as Marber explains in an interview in the Roundabout's always informative Upstage Guide (You can pick up the all about Travesties issue with an image of Tom Hollander on the cover in the lobby or download it at https://www.roundabouttheatre.org/Teach-Learn/Play-goer-Guides.aspx) he did get the chance to direct a new revival of Travesties for London's prestigious Menier Chocolate Factory. As his first viewing of the play was at once puzzling and thrilling, the same was true about figuring out how to do it. As he put it: "I had no idea how to do it. It was as mystifying to me as it had been more than 35 years before." But determined not to disappoint Stoppard, who'd become a mentor and friend, he reread the 1973 version (rewritten by Stoppard in 1993) and that reading gave him the way into a new look into it as "an intellectual farce with songs and dancing and the lucid logic of a dream" to give it the emotional pull "as the terrible tragedy of time."
While songs have been part of other productions before, never have they been virtually turned into real production numbers, almost as if this were a musical. Fortunately, Marber's approach pleased the author and resulted in some more diddling on his part. Best of all, the production found its perfect Henry Carr in Tom Hollander. What's more, tnis song and dance infused TravestieS was beautifully realized by the entire cast and a stellar design team.
And New York theater goers are in luck. Hollander is again on board for his tour-de-force segue back and forth between the bathroom clad, memory challenged old Carr and his sprightlier 2017 self, which at the top of the second and best act sees him in dashing pinstriped blazer and straw hat as Joyce's lead in the amateur ...Earnest. (The first act does have just a few slow moments). Also reprising their work are Peter MacDonald as limerick spouting James Joyce and the superb crafts team.
The actors joining Hollander and MacDonald on Broadway couldn't be better. The hyper-kinetic, wonderfully flamboyant Seth Numrich plays the Dadaist Tristan Tzara. Dan Butler is an amusingly romantic Lenin and Opal Alladin excellent as his staunchly supportive wife. Patrick Kerr is delightfully opinionated and obsequious as Carr's butler Bennett. Scarlett Strallen and Sara Topham provide much fun as Gwendolyn and Cecily — Strallen as Cart's sister Gwendolyn, the librarian, object of Tzara's affections and, yes, the Gwendolyn of Wilde's play. . . Sara Topham as Cecily, who becomes something of a revolutionary. And yes, she too gets to play the other Cecily.
Tim Hatley's richly wood paneled setting for the Zurich library and Carr's home where his recollectons spring to life, fits as if custom-made into the elegant American Airline Theater. Books are stacked all over the place. The floor is covered with pasted down pages from books and as befits a farce there are enough doors (I counted 6), including one in a multi-purpose platform much and most effectively used.
Marber has Stoppard's characters popping in and out of those doors to help Carr relive those long ago memories with non-stop inventive touches. Highlights of the various song and dance routines include a vaudevillian "Mr. Gallagher and Mr. Shean" number for Cecily and Gwendolyn. To intensify the fun, as the action move back and forth between the World War I era and 50 years later, so it also restarts and replays itself in a different permutation.
Despite all the singing and dancing that make this a lot more satisfying than some of the actual musicals that have opened on Broadway this season, there's plenty of back and forth debating about politics and the importance and meaning of art. A full company dance finale, is followed by a touching scene in which Hollander rounds out a portrait that hints at Carr's almost obsessive interest in fashion being his way of dealing with what was in those days not recognized as post traumatic stress syndrome.
Bravo to this fine actor who New Yorkers have seen only on screen and Director Marber for giving us not just another revival, but a decidedly fresh and enjoyable one.
For more about Tom Stoppard and links to other plays by him reviewed at Curtainup, see our Playwright Album's See our Tom Stoppard page .
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Travesties by Tom Stoppard
Directed by Patrick Marber
Cast: Tom Hollander as Henry Carr, Peter McDonald as James Joyce, Seth Numrich as Tristan Tzara, Dan Butler as Lenin, Scarlett Strallen as Gwendolen, Sara Topham as Cecily, Opal Alladin as Nadya and Patrick Kerr as Bennett
Tim Hatley -Set and Costume Design
Neil Austin -Lighting Design
Adam Cork-Sound Design and Original Music
Polly Bennett -(Movement
Stage Manager: Bess Marie Glorioso
Running Time: 2 1/2 hours, including 1 15-minute intermission
American Airlines Theatre 227 West 42nd Street
From 3/29/18; opening 4/24/18; closing 6/17/18
Tuesday through Saturday evening at 8:00PM, Wednesday and Saturday matinees at 2:00PM and Sunday matinees at 3:00PM.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 4/28 press matinee
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