Big Questions, Big Fun: Tom Stoppard’s ‘Travesties’ Returns to Broadway
In ‘Travesties,’ the question of what art is becomes a bracing comedic rollercoaster involving Lenin and James Joyce, while a fight for college places unfolds in ‘Transfers.’
What is art? That is the big, bold, starter for 10 at the heart of the intellectual rollercoaster Tom Stoppard sets in motion in Travesties.
We see it right there, in front of us in Tim Hatley’s warrenous set with papers and boxes of papers, and books piled to toppling height. We are to imagine both an apartment and a library, arenas of thoughts and bubbling cultural anarchy. Hidden passageways and entry and exit points sharpen the play’s farcical energy.
The 1974 play, which won the Best Play Tony Award in 1976, returns to Broadway in this Roundabout Theatre production. The excellent Tom Hollander gives a hyper-kinetic, beguiling performance as Henry Carr, the low-level English consular official who retells the story—or some kind of story as his flickering memory permits—of when Dadaism founder Tristan Tzara (Seth Numrich), James Joyce (Peter McDonald), and Lenin (Dan Butler) were all based in Zurich in 1917.
Carr puts himself at the center of their activities that year, as the men bustle around the city in and out of the library or Carr’s home kvetching, theorizing, and flirting. Travesties lays all their intellectual roustabouts on thick, studded with delightful moments of confrontation and simple confusion. Limericks pop out of mouths, sections of the play come in Joycean rhyme, the acting is delivered with gleeful sides of ham.
Carr keeps calling Joyce women’s names, because he’s called “Joyce.” Cecily (Sara Topham) and Gwendolen (Scarlett Strallen) from The Importance of Being Earnest also join the madhouse festivities; Carr is staging the play, which led to a protracted dispute with Joyce that occurred in real life.
We see Carr as a jaunty young man, reveling in being the center of this brainbox circus, and then as an old man, some 50 years later. He is trying to make sense of what happened, doddering around the paper-strewn apartment. For all his puppyish mischief as a young man, Hollander brings considerable, even moving, pathos to Carr as he is losing his grip on his memory and life.
Patrick Marber’s dazzling production may still result in befuddlement on the part of the audience. Around this critic, it was evident some of the audience was not getting Travesties at all. Some were finding it roaringly funny, and others were finding some things funny and letting some of “its references and arguments wash over” them, as Todd Haimes, artistic director and CEO of Roundabout, acknowledges in a note for the show’s Playbill.
The line between Travesties and Earnest becomes increasingly blurred, leading to perhaps the funniest moment of the evening, when Cecily and Gwendolen, mired in confusion over Carr and Tzara’s respective identities, confront each other over tea. “Oh Cecily, oh Cecily,” “Oh Gwendolen, oh Gwendolen,” has never sounded so daintily poisonous as these two wonderful actresses manage to gin up multiple times.
Stoppard’s wordplay is silly and excellent. “Do you know Gilbert and Sullivan?” Carr asks Cecily. “I know Gilbert but not Sullivan” is Cecily’s reply.
The debates between Carr and Joyce may be fierce, but the best line Stoppard gives Carr to say to Joyce is: “And I have only one request to make of you—why, for God’s sake, cannot you contrive just once to wear the jacket that is suggested by your trousers?”
Joyce is chastened. McDonald says meekly, “If I could do it once, I could do it every time. My wardrobe got out of step in Trieste, and its reciprocal members pass each other endlessly in the night.”
McDonald plays Joyce as a sober, hard-working writer and poet. The wildness of his prose is not physically evident in his character. For the Ulysses author, “An artist is the magician put among men to gratify—capriciously—their urge for immortality. The temples are built and brought down around him, continuously and contiguously, from Troy to the fields of Flanders. If there is any meaning in any of it, it is in what survives as art, yes, even in the celebration of tyrants, yes even in the celebration of nonentities.”
Numrich as Tzara is all gangly mischief, his leg posed balletically along any bookshelf it can find. “Wars are fought for oil wells and coaling stations, for control of the Dardanelles or the Suez Canal, for colonial pickings to buy cheap in and conquered markets to sell dear in.”
Carr responds furiously: “I went to war because I believed that those boring little Belgians and incompetent Frogs had the right to be defended from German militarism, and that’s love of freedom.” (Yes, it’s a free-for-all when it comes to pejoratives describing specific nationalities.)
Lenin and his wife, Nadya (Opal Alladin), are little seen, although he plays a mean lute. One wonderful scene has them arguing in Russian, with Cecily translating for us in English, with all three’s heightened emotion intact.
“Art is society!” Cecily idealistically maintains. “It is one part of many parts all touching each other, everything from poetry to politics. And until the whole is reformed, artistic decadence, whether in the form of the perfectly phrased epigram or a hatful of words flung in the public’s face, is a luxury which only artists can afford.”
Lenin is more qualified, and more political. “Everyone is free to write and say whatever he likes, without any restrictions. But every voluntary association, including the party, is also free to expel members who use the name of the party to advocate anti-party views... Socialist literature and art will be free because the idea of socialism and sympathy with the working people, instead of greed and careerism, will bring ever new forces to its ranks!”
No one vision of “art” has prevailed since 1974, when Stoppard wrote Travesties. In fact, the notion of “culture” has proliferated more widely than any of the characters imagined. It has leapt from ivory towers, it has cross-pollinated with politics, sport, it has migrated across continents, it has gone high, and it has gone low, it can be both high and low. It powers political debate. It is a financial engine for communities. It is a badge of identity.
Travesties sets up a debate about what art and culture means, then it takes successive pins to the theoretical balloons it casts into the air and opts for some incidental fun instead.
You might find this framing and reframing of big questions, followed by pratfalls and jokes, enlivening or baffling. But Marber and all the actors make Stoppard’s difficult play ring as clear as it can. Be assured that Travesties also comes to Broadway with a big dance sequence, when all bets are off and when all the characters make delirious fools of themselves.
It is Carr, however, the older version of himself, who has the last word, which focuses again on what art is, and why it matters.
That’s what Travesties answers most resoundingly, even at its most absurd. Travesties insists, with a subversive smile and unapologetic ferocity, that art and artists are far more important and have far greater impact than society—than even eccentric, competitive, priapic artists—can fully comprehend.
Travesties is at the American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd St., New York City. Booking to June 17.
In Lucy Thurber’s Transfers, Clarence Mathews (Ato Blankson-Wood) and Cristofer Rodriguez (Juan Castano) both want places at a prestigious university in western Massachusetts. They have an interview coach, David DeSantos (Glenn Davis), who the night before their pivotal scholarship interviews wants them to knuckle down and focus.
Naturally, all three men instead face demons and fall apart. The two boys not only know each other but are linked by a tragic event. They also have a nervous intimacy with one another; Clarence is the quiet, gay cerebral culture vulture, while Cristofer is a hyper, slightly menacing wrestler.
Donyale Werle’s design is a standout element of Jackson Gay’s MCC production, with trees looming over a space that transforms from snowbound hotel room to bright, sun-filled offices.
Transfers isn’t the first play about the fraught business of college applications either. Admissions at Lincoln Center treads similar territory, but from a very different perspective of white upper middle class privilege and panic.
Here, the panic on the part of the black Clarence and the Latino Cristofer is that they have little to nothing material in their favor. They need these scholarships. Whole directions of lives will be affected by the result, and we see that in the play’s denouement.
The play raises urgent questions about fairness—not just social but in the academic system’s selection procedures—but the volume button on a few of the characters is ratcheted up far too high. The drama becomes blunted when it feels as if we are being shouted at; the stage of the Lucille Lortel feels too small for it.
The tenderness and nuance of Blankson-Wood and Castano’s performances, when the boys are left alone to themselves, pondering some very heavy imponderables, give the play its most piercing depth.
Transfers is at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher St., New York City. Booking to May 13.