Talk about art. And why not if the culture war of words is between such pivotal figures as James Joyce and Tristan Tzara? What better ringmaster to preside over revolutions of art — not to mention style, class and politics — than Tom Stoppard, the brilliant theatrical magician who can simultaneously juggle a half-dozen thematic balls in the air while pulling a rabbit out of his hat just for the fun of it. Stoppard’s art might belong to dada but his mind is entirely his own in Gregory Boyd’s smart, audacious and thoroughly entertaining production of “Travesties,” the season closer at the Long Wharf Theater.
Stepping back to the beginning of another century, in the midst of another war, in the makings of another world order, Stoppard’s Tony-winning 1975 play is a vaudeville for Mensa members that also can delight those who just want to go along for a thrilling theatrical ride.
The production stars Sam Waterston in a virtuosic perf that returns the actor to the stage in a magnificently mad role — actually several during the course of the play. In “Travesties,” Waterston not only plays a fluttering cuckoo of an old man recalling his days as a British consular official in Switzerland in 1917, but his younger self when his path crossed with Joyce (Don Stephenson), Tzara (Tom Hewitt) and — almost, but not quite — Lenin (Gregor Paslawsky). For good measure, Waterston gets to play a twit of a different color as Algernon when a bit of “The Importance of Being Earnest” is interpolated into the play.
In “Travesties,” revolution is in the air and it takes all sorts of forms. As Lenin pens his treatise against imperialism in a Zurich library, Joyce works on “Ulysses” while Tzara scissors words from a page, dropping them into his hat and randomly retrieving them. Bringing the disparate figures and their philosophies together is Waterston’s Henry Carr, a real figure captured by Stoppard for literary posterity: a noble eccentric and a patriot with a passion for pants.
In the battle between classicism and modernism, between socialism and capitalism, between turtle soup and the mock, Stoppard and helmer Boyd make the intellectual points by employing an exhaustive range of theatrical razzle dazzle, tapping high art and low. (Boyd even playfully starts the evening by segueing from the traditional announcement about cell phones and candy wrappers into a librarian’s “shhhh,” which starts the first scene in Zurich.) From there come puns, limericks, epigrams, projections, music hall ditties, slapstick, burlesque, magic tricks, excursions into drawing-room comedy, a touch of a sex farce, even a flash of T&A. Even the backstage crew gets into the act.
Casting song-and-dance men Hewitt and Stephenson as the battling aesthetes is inspired. Hewitt infuses his role of Tzara with an incandescent surrealness that effortlessly evokes bigger-than-life musical divas. Stephenson also gives a crisp musicality to the language and character of Joyce. Paslawsky is a ringer for Lenin, lending the right gravitas to the role. And there is no more subtle butler than Graeme Malcolm’s Benedict.
Isabel Keating, Cheryl Lynn Bowers and Maggie Lacey are all splendid as Lenin’s dark associate, Carr’s sister and the overdue librarian, respectively.
Neil Patel’s set cleverly allows the modern and the classical (and even the postmodern) to playfully coexist in one fantastical yet neutral space. Rui Rita’s lighting guides the fast-moving, time-tripping action with the perfect focus and mood.
The second half of the play slogs a bit with more politics than playfulness (that Lenin can go on and on), some steam running out of the perfs and a slapstick, pie-throwing episode that just doesn’t have the intended payoff. Still, more often than not, the overall production is simply breathtaking in its ability to entertain and engage in weighty matters of world affairs, the meaning of memory and the importance of being eccentric. And that is an art unto itself.