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Lenin, James Joyce and Dadaism — All in the Style of Oscar Wilde In Tom Stoppard’s Exuberant “Travesties” at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre

Tom Stoppard’s Travesties opened in London in 1974, came to the United States and won both Tony and N.Y. Drama Critics Circle Awards for Best Play in 1976 and is currently at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre in a dazzling production directed by Sam Buntrock. It is a wildly extravagant intellectual feast.

“I want to marry the play of ideas to farce,” Mr. Stoppard explained. “Now that may be like eating steak tartare with chocolate sauce, but that’s the way it comes out. Everyone will have to decide for himself whether the seriousness is doomed or redeemed by the frivolity.”

It is Zurich in 1917, during the First World War, with Lenin preparing to return to Russia to lead the Russian revolution, James Joyce is in the process of writing Ulysses, and Dadaist Tristan Tzara is challenging the world of European art. The ideas come thick and fast here, though a constant barrage of puns, limericks, and word play, a smattering of song and dance and recurrent reminders of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest might, as Stoppard suggests, be smothering the seriousness of those ideas in chocolate sauce.

With so many historical, artistic, and literary allusions, this tour de force of hyperactive wit provides extraordinary riches for the mind. In this vein of Wildean farce and George Bernard Shaw’s comedies of manners and ideas, Mr. Stoppard has produced an impressive array of masterpieces over the past five decades, from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1968) through The Real Thing(1982), Arcadia(1993), Coast of Utopia (2007) and many more. Nowhere, however, do the farce, allusions and intellectual ideas spin more wildly over the top than they do here in the pyrotechnics of Travesties.

Mr. Stoppard’s feat of relentless verbal dexterity, extraordinarily clever plotting to get Lenin, Joyce, and Tzara together through the reminiscences of a minor consular official, Henry Carr, who narrates the play, all in a spoof of The Importance of Being Earnest is surely a composition of genius. The McCarter production is worthy of this genius — also admirable, impressive and delightfully inventive in its staging and in the eight sterling, high-energy, high quality performances of its distinguished cast of eight.

Whether audiences will unreservedly enjoy this play is another question. Such rich fare can be overwhelming. A number of patrons left at intermission last Saturday night, slightly more than halfway through the three-hour show. The fast and furious pace of allusions, ideas, and farce are challenging to say the least. Theater-goers looking for traditional dramatic virtues of plot and depth of characterization will be disappointed. Some diners find both steak tartare and chocolate sauce, not to mention the combination, too much for the palate.

Travesties focuses on the character of Henry Carr (the redoubtable James Urbaniak), old man, sitting in his apartment, still in Zurich in 1974, and remembering, with questionable reliability, back to 1917: “Great days … Zurich during the war. Refugees, spies, exiles, painters, poets, writers, radicals of all kinds. I knew them all.”

The role is fabricated partly from history, partly from Mr. Stoppard’s fertile imagination. A Henry Carr did work as a consular official in Zurich and did in fact play the role of Algernon in a Zurich production of The Importance of Being Earnest produced by The English Players of which Joyce was the business manager at the time. He and Joyce did clash over money matters surrounding the production and their dispute did end up in court.

As Mr. Stoppard wrote in the program notes for the original production, Travesties is a work of fiction which makes use, and misuse, of history. Scenes which are self-evidently documentary mingle with others which are just as evidently fantastical. People who were hardly aware of each other’s existence are made to collide; real people and imaginary people are brought together without ceremony; and events which took place months, and even years, apart are presented as synchronous.”

Mr. Urbaniak embraces this character with panache, both the irascible, forgetful old man (“… you may or may not have noticed that I got my wires crossed a bit here and there, you know how it is when the old think-box gets stuck in a groove and before you know where you are you’ve jumped the points…”) and the urbane young swain.

He transitions seamlessly from the long monologues of an old man’s reminiscences (a la Krapp’s Last Tape) to the vibrant setting (a la The Importance of Being Earnest with an added dose of politics and aesthetics) of Zurich and Carr’s encounters — political, personal and romantic — with Joyce (Fred Arsenault), Tristan Tzara (Christian Coulson), Lenin (Demosthenes Chrysan), Lenin’s wife Nadya (Lusia Strus), Carr’s eccentric butler Bennett (Everett Quinton), his sister Gwendolyn (Susannah Flood) and a young librarian, Cecily (Sara Topham), whom he falls in love with and later marries.

Mr. Coulson’s Tzara, with scissors in hand as he cuts out his words to scramble his poetic creations, is a fascinating, credible figure, vehemently defending his radical aesthetic theories, as he simultaneously pursues his romantic and personal ends.

Mr. Arsenault’s James Joyce, working on Ulysses, described here by Tzara as “derived from reference to Homer and the Dublin telephone book of 1904,” brings this unusual literary figure and his avid limerick-making to vivid, memorable life.

Mr. Chrysan’s Lenin and Ms. Strus’s Nadya are both formidable, authoritative characterizations, seen from a certain distance here — Mr. Carr had little or no actual interaction with the Russian revolutionary. Their dialogue and his speeches are almost entirely taken from historical documents.

Ms. Flood’s Gwendolyn and Ms. Topham’s Cecily both perform admirably in their embracing of the wild (and Wilde) world of this play and in encountering, with flair and poise, the erratic male characters who surround them. Ms. Topham is particularly strong, articulate, and striking throughout, as librarian, Leninist, and romantic interest, then wife, to Carr.

The incomparable Everett Quinton contributes a delightfully bizarre performance as Carr’s edgy, class conscious butler Bennett.

Production values here are of extraordinarily high quality. David Farley’s breathtaking set creates the huge shelves, dark wood paneling, and even a winding staircase between levels of the realistic Zurich library, then transforms so swiftly and effectively to Henry Carr’s small apartment, with clear, specific distinctions between 1917 and 1974 versions.

Mr. Farley’s colorfully fashionable costumes, historically specific and expressive for the period and the particular characters, along with David Weiner’s dramatic, varied, and nuanced lighting, all provide firm grounding and clarification in the creation of the worlds of this play. The renowned David Shire has composed the appropriate, appealing music for the production.

Yes, some knowledge of Europe during World War I, Lenin and the Russian Revolution, Joyce, Tzara, and artistic movements of the early twentieth century is helpful here; but this luminous, dynamic cast, each character aflame with his or her particular passion, and the lucid, imaginative, intelligent direction of Mr. Buntrock (director of an award-winning revival of Sunday in the Park with George in London and New York, 2005-2008, and Take Flight at McCarter two years ago) keep the whirling words and actions moving along on track and in focus. This superb production delivers Mr. Stoppard’s Travesties — jam-packed with word-play, literary allusions, and historical references — with a dazzlingly light touch that assures entertainment even when confusion might defy comprehension.


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