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.
Written when the playwright (“Arcadia,” “The Coast of Utopia”) was a mere stripling, this extravagant farce bristles with clever wordplay, from Joycean limericks (“There was a young man from Dublin ….”) to Wildean epigrams. (“I have always found that irony among the lower orders is the first sign of an awakening social consciousness.”) One dazzling scene, in fact, is written entirely in limericks.
Fun on its own etymological terms, this madcap comedy also tips its hat — a beat-up straw boater with a jaunty red hatband — to the spirit of revolution that galvanized Europe in 1917. The War to End All Wars, as the First World War was ironically mis-named, was raging in Europe at the time, while Russia was still in the throes of becoming the Soviet Union.
It’s Stoppard’s conceit that, while the world held its breath and plunged into war, a Swiss library served as a refuge for James Joyce (Peter McDonald, a spooky lookalike), Lenin (a dour Dan Butler), and the flamboyant Dadaist artist, Tristan Tzara (Seth Numrich, in full fig), each a revolutionary in his own right. Although all three figures were voluble talkers, the narrative duties are entrusted to one Henry Carr (Tom Hollander, a treasure), an anonymous clerk who became a fleeting historical asterisk when he sued James Joyce over the cost of a pair of trousers.
Carr is one of those anonymous men who live through great moments in history without contributing anything whatsoever to those parlous times. In his slyly sidesplitting performance, Hollander plays this little man with the perfectly blank affect merited by such a nonentity.
Stoppard wrote his farce in the manner of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest,” and Patrick Marber, who also directed the production at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory, honors his eccentric wishes here. Given those circumstances, the appearance of Cecily (Sara Topham) and Gwendolen (Scarlett Strallen), fugitive players from that comedy, makes farcical sense, while contributing wonderfully witty scenes written in fractured verse and set to music. (“Oh, Gwendolen! Oh, Gwendolen! / It sounds ez pretty ez a mendolen!”)
But underneath the gem-like brilliance of its theatrical style, the play’s dark subject matter emerges through Carr’s own remembered experiences in the war. “I was there,” he tells us, “in the mud and blood of a foreign field, unmatched by anything in the whole history of human carnage.” But before the mind can absorb that dreadful image, Carr the clotheshorse adds that he “ruined several pairs of trousers” while in the trenches.
That about-face joke perfectly captures Stoppard’s wry humor. But it also illustrates his back-handed way of questioning (or is it mocking?) his own artistic attempt to address the subject of war within the context of farce. What’s funny about war; or, for that matter, what’s funny about social revolution, which both claim human lives? Even when the artist dares to grapple with such a question, doesn’t it all seem like, well, a Dadaist joke?
“Wars are fought to make the world safe for artists,” says Carr, noting that artists prove to be “ungrateful, hostile, self-centered, and untalented — for which freedoms I went to war.” Easy for him to say. Having been wounded in battle, he sits out the rest of the hostilities in a library in safe, pacific Switzerland, along with other non-combatants like Joyce, Tzara and Lenin.
Lenin is his usual surly self about the non-political Dadaist poets. “Decadent nihilists! Flogging too good for them!” But then again, the Dadaists don’t care much for the socialist notion that art has a duty to change society. Carr does his diplomatic best to resolve the quarrel: “Art doesn’t change society, it is merely changed by it.”
But the aesthetic battle continues to rage over his objections, which gives Stoppard no end of fun — and his future audiences plenty to puzzle over.