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'Travesties' review: Tom Stoppard's comedy is a work of art

Dan Butler, Opal Alladin and Tom Hollander, seated,

Dan Butler, Opal Alladin and Tom Hollander, seated, star in Tom Stoppard's comedy "Travesties" at American Airlines Theatre. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

WHAT “Travesties”

WHERE American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St.

INFO From $49; 212-719-1300, roundabouttheatre.org

BOTTOM LINE Tom Stoppard’s uproarious play explores the nature of art.

Art is absurdly overrated by artists, proclaims one of the characters in “Travesties,” the 1974 Tom Stoppard comedy that makes great sport of dissecting that notion.

The madcap play, winner of the 1976 Tony Award, is getting its first Broadway revival, at Roundabout’s American Airlines Theatre. It is yet another transfer from London, where it played to sellout crowds at the Menier Chocolate Factory before moving to the West End.

Impeccably directed as it was in London by Patrick Marber, the play is set during World War I in Zurich, the famously neutral city that in 1917 counted among its residents author James Joyce, revolutionist Vladimir Lenin and poet Tristan Tzara, a founder of the freethinking artistic movement known as Dada.

Only a playwright as brilliantly inventive as Stoppard could put all that together to come up with an uproarious work that seriously questions the nature of art. He tells the story through the eyes of Henry Carr (Tom Hollander, delightfully zany) a real-life British diplomat we first meet as a doddering old man in rumpled robe and crumpled straw hat, fighting through his senility to recall these people who invaded his life.

As Carr sheds robe and hat, his younger persona interacts with the other characters who come and go on Tim Hatley’s perfectly cluttered set (love the odd assortment of taxidermy) that serves as both library and Carr’s apartment.

Central to the action is Joyce (a rightfully studious Peter McDonald), who is running a theater company while working on “Ulysses.” He wants Carr to play Algernon in “The Importance of Being Earnest,” a play as closely intertwined with this work as “Hamlet” is with Stoppard’s earlier “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.”

Tzara (Seth Numrich, deliciously loose-limbed) flits about, wooing Carr’s sister, Gwendolen, while Lenin (Dan Butler, looking very much like the real thing) sequesters himself in the library researching revolutionary tactics and finding a disciple in the lovely librarian Cecily (note the character names lifted from “Earnest”).

In a recent New Yorker interview, Stoppard called “Travesties” “intellectual entertainment.” And certainly, it helps to know something of the source material (Roundabout makes a valiant effort to offer details in the program). Even without a solid knowledge of Irish novelists, avant-garde poets or Russian revolutionaries, it’s possible, as Roundabout’s artistic director Todd Haimes suggests, to simply let the pleasures of the show “wash over you.” As Carr says more than once, “We’re here because we’re here. “

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