Don’t be afraid of Tom Stoppard and miss the wonderful revival of Travesties that the Roundabout Theatre Company has brought over from London. Across the pond, director Patrick Marber’s lauded production at the Menier Chocolate Factory got raves and transferred to the West End. The Roundabout has snagged the production, and its star Tom Hollander, for the first revival of Travesties on Broadway in 42 years.
I know, I know, you’ve always heard that Stoppard is a wordy intellectual, and nobody can understand his plays. Or that he’s an unfeeling intellectual and his plays are merely cerebral and boring. Well, I will give you that he is a very, very, very, smart man. And he likes to grapple with big questions and themes. And he does love language. But often, and certainly in Travesties, he does it with wit, humor and through the lens of the absurd. And for good measure he throws in some vaudeville and musical numbers. There’s also a whole jaw-dropping scene done in the form of a limerick. Kudos to the ensemble on that one! As an actor myself, the thought of 5 actors getting the lines down, in the correct rhythm without making it seem like you’re reciting from a book, makes me break into a sweat.
You don't need to know a lot to enjoy this entertaining and thought-provoking piece of theater. It's that this is a play about memory, art, revolution and OK, a little history. Our narrator is Henry Carr (Tom Hollander), a real person who was a young British soldier in WWI. He was wounded, captured by the Germans and released in a prisoner-of-war exchange in Switzerland. Where he ended up in Zurich as a Consul in the diplomatic office in 1917. Also in Zurich during WWI, were three other historical figures. The novelist James Joyce (Peter McDonald), the communist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin (Dan Butler), and one of the founders of the Dada movement, Tristan Tzara (Seth Numrich).
The play takes place in two places and two times, both in Zurich. In the apartment of Henry Carr both in 1917, and in the unspecified present where he still lives. And in 1917, in the public library where all three historical figures gather regularly to work. This is really Carr’s story. He tells us the story both as an old man remembering the events, and as a young man living them. And reliving them repeatedly as he remembers the details differently. Tom Hollander gives a tour de force performance as Carr, going from 85 to 25 and back again convincingly with only his voice, a dressing gown and a hat. He is also able to navigate the tricky business of breaking the 4th wall, and then putting it up again seamlessly.
Of course, director Patrick Marber deserves credit for this too, as he does for the tight, brisk and specific production that embodies the Dada, revolutionary themes without muddying the waters. But never forget, this play is called Travesties for a reason. As the Playbill says in its guide to the play, “Characters in Travesties are travesties of the real people they are based on.” So, if James Joyce is your literary idol, don’t get your knickers in a twist that he speaks mostly in limericks.
Stoppard has said that the reason he thinks theater is the right medium for him is that dialogue is the only way he can argue with himself. He gives full scope to this personal pleasure in Travesties with thrilling results. Throughout the play various characters make marvelous pronouncements on the nature of “Art” with a capital “A." But the scene between the diplomat Carr and the Dadaist Tzara is as juicy a contest of wit and wisdom on the subjects of art, war, and capitalism as you are ever likely to have the privilege of witnessing.
Truly, there are so many levels on which you can enjoy this work. I recommend that you strap yourself in and go for the ride. You won’t regret it.
(Photo by Joan Marcus)
What the popular press says...
"My advice to anyone attending this show of rollicking intellect and silly stagecraft, which has been deliciously directed by Patrick Marber: Let it rain and soak it in. By evening’s end, you’ll be surprised by the iridescent clarity that has emerged from Mr. Stoppard’s artfully chaotic assemblage of rampant speculation, literary texts, great-man biography parodies, legal documents, political tracts and rude schoolboy japes. That clarity won’t last, any more than a rainbow does."
Ben Brantley for New York Times
"Broadway’s spry revival of Travesties is guaranteed to work your gray matter. Its author is brainy British playwright Tom Stoppard; that’s how he rolls. The happy bonus of the brightly acted Roundabout production at the American Airlines Theater is how often the 1974 comedy engages one’s smile muscles."
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News
"In Patrick Marber’s well-judged and high-spirited revival, which the director first staged in London in 2016 (with Hollander and McDonald), the result is inviting rather than snobbishly exclusive, and the structural and verbal dazzle are offset with subtle suggestions of elegy. Even if you can’t solve it all as you watch, it’s a pleasure to engage with a production that does Travesties full justice."
Adam Feldman for Time Out New York
"You don't have to enroll for a graduate degree to enjoy Tom Stoppard's simultaneously wacky and intellectual 1974 comedy, now being given its first-ever Broadway revival by the Roundabout Theater Company. That's largely due to the accessible nature of director Patrick Marber's rollickingly staged production, which garnered raves for its London stints at the Menier Chocolate Factory and the West End. The handy crib sheet provided in the program doesn't hurt, either."
Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter
"In the Roundabout Theatre Company’s Broadway revival of Travesties, a sign (“Ruhe Bitte”) on the show’s set advises us to please be quiet in the Zurich reading room where Tom Stoppard’s 1973 comedy takes place. But you can forget about that, because the sound of laughter can’t be contained."
Marilyn Stasio for Variety
External links to full reviews from popular press...