World War I, the Russian Revolution – nobody ever thought 1917 was a laugh riot. Nobody, that is, until 1974, when Tom Stoppard’s tour-de-force Travesties was first performed.
Examining the very eventful year in question (or at least the memory thereof), Stoppard’s witty, whimsical and wildly imaginative work is narrated years later more or less through the rather dodgy reminiscences of a somewhat senile Henry Carr (a delightfully daffy Tom Hollander, reprising his 2016-17 performance in the U.K., where this production originated). This clothing-obsessed minor British consular official recalls the historical celebrities he may or may not have really mingled with in Zurich all those years ago: Irish author James Joyce (Peter McDonald) busily working on Ulysses, Dadaist artist Tristan Tzara (a flashily entertaining Seth Numrich) and exiled Russian revolutionary Vladimir Ulyanov, aka Lenin (Dan Butler). Carr’s motives for relating this memoir are questionable (as an elderly man, he’s looking to make some money from his youthful shoulder-rubbing), and his memories are murky, bound up in a production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, which structures and sometimes subsumes his recollections. Gwendolen (Scarlett Strallen), who’s here Joyce’s assistant and the object of Tzara’s affections, and Cecily (Sara Topham), now the reprimanding librarian of the Zurich library where all these men pursue their various work, even make appearances.
It’s a complicated conceit – or rather, several of them, intermingled – and draws on an enormous amount of literary, historical and artistic lore. What’s more, the career-making play involves incredible technical virtuosity. A scene written entirely in limericks? Check. A confrontation between Gwendolen and Cecily turned into a musical operetta duet? Done. Dopey recurrent jokes about Joyce’s name? You got it. Philosophical examinations of the nature of war, art and revolution? They’re there, too. Stoppard’s triumph was to make it all fascinating, fun and follow-able – even if you haven’t recently taken a course on the great thinkers of the 20th century to prep – but a poor production can send the spinning plates in the air into a crashing wreck of undecipherable historical and literary references that either go over the audience’s heads or fall flat at their feet. Fortunately, in the latest Broadway production (courtesy of the Roundabout), directory Patrick Marber manages to keep everything as clear and compelling as it is quirky and comical, with a touch both masterful and playful. In this endeavor, he’s aided by a sparkling cast, able to find (and convey) the sense in Stoppard’s inspired nonsense and have fun doing it. Their enthusiasm is infectious, and they miss neither a silly trick nor a cerebral touchpoint of the smart, sprawling script.
So in the end, what do we learn about Henry’s actual history? Perhaps just that if the first time a story’s told it’s tragedy, the second time farce – all that’s left for the third time is travesty.