What an absolute pleasure it is to try to enumerate the many joys of Tom Stoppard’s early comic roundelay “Travesties!” It is joyously back on Broadway making the America Airlines Theater really Fly Through the Air With the Greatest of Ease. The sound of audiences laughing at this deft, daft, witty, reimaging of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest”, and the early meeting in 1917 of James Joyce, Lenin and Dadaist founder Tristan Tzara (self-portrait above)as related by the doddering British bureaucrat, Henry Carr, was music to my ears! How rare it is to NOT be talked down to on dumbed-down Broadway. What joy! What rapture unforeseen!
Stoppard sends all us dictionairists flying high into the sky of silly syllogisms, real and imagined. He loves words. He loves playing with words, and the first time I ever saw “Travesties,” I just hated it. I didn’t get it. It was praised to the skies in its’ initial iterations on Broadway and the West End, and I couldn’t make head nor tail of it. What WERE the critics cheering about? It won the Tony for Best Play of 1975. It didn’t make any sense. But this time, I got it. It’s not supposed to. In any traditional sort of way.
For we are within the meandering mind of Henry Carr, a personage of absolutely NO importance, and now, as the play begins, slipping wordfully into his dotage. He can’t remember anything. Or rather, he can’t remember anything CORRECTLY.
“White flag, pacific, civilian Switzerland – the miraculous neutrality of it” amidst the War to End All Wars, “blundered and wandered” Henry Carr, who now decades later, encouraged to be a memoirist, can barely remember his own name. And history barely remembers him. Except as a litigant against James Joyce, for slander and the price of a pair of trousers. Joyce won.
You see, Carr, was Algernon Moncrief, in an amateur production of “The Importance of Being Earnest,” directed in 1917 in Zurich by James Joyce, who is writing “Ulysses,” or as Carr, still angry at Joyce after all these year, calls “Elasticated Bloomers,” as he hurls a copy of that masterpiece across the stage hissing “THAT BOOK!”
You see Carr DIDN’T write that book. As Salieri never equaled Mozart. And he also doesn’t remember, more than he mis-rembers his young self and all the greats he DID know. Kinda. Sorta.
Sounds confusing, no? But never has the onset of dementia been portrayed as such an intellectual laugh-riot.
Set in the reading room of the Zurich library and Carr’s more humble flat(though he does have a manservant), Stoppard comes to the conclusion, I feel, that Joyce, Lenin and the entire thought of World War, were all Travesties, as the title says.
Stoppard’s early masterwork is being given a first-rate production under the hand of British playwright Patrick Marber. Tom Hollander is the peerless British character who is having the time of his life as he is losing his mind, as Carr. He’s been nominated for a Tony for Best Actor, and the play as Best Revival.
“Travesties” is another delicious gem of a transfer by the marvelous Menier Chocolate Factory of London. Even though Carr and Tom Hollander as a limerick-spouting, loutish Joyce, are the only two original cast members, Marber’s spot-on, mind-spinning direction is a joy to behold.
But at last I have to say that it is the Dadaist painter and bon vivant Tristan Tzara, as played with the greatest of skill and elan by American actor Seth Numrich, that playwright Stoppard is the most sympathetic to. His Tzara is another joy of acting. Loose-limbed, loose-lipped and simply louche, he is always wearing a monocle and a bright purple carvat., He’s outrageous and adorable all at the same time.
Tzara is first seen cutting Shakespeare’s most famous sonnet “Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?” into a million pieces of paper, shuffling them around in his hat, and then dumping them all out-of-order on the floor. And declaring as if it was some magic trick that it’s “Da-da!”
Stoppard’s magic trick is analogous to that silly symbol of legerdemain and simply not to be missed! It is flying high at the American Airlines Theater at 227 W. 42nd St. until June 17.