It may be easier to inventory what the Broadway revival of Tom Stoppard’s 1974 tour de force isn’t about than what it is: A gushing waterfall of wordplay, a fine-tuned literary torrent that only begins by covering love, sex, war, memory, and Marxism. Also James Joyce, Dada, the fine art of men’s tailoring, and The Importance of Being Earnest.
British actor Tom Hollander (consistently great onscreen, whether he’s playing an amoral fixer in The Night Manager or a priggish minister in Pride & Prejudice) reprises his Olivier-nominated role from Travesties‘ 2016 London run, and handles much of the first act’s heavy lifting as Henry Carr, a loquacious retiree and incurable clotheshorse — he lives for a well-cut cream trouser and a good cravat— looking back on his time as a second-string diplomat in Switzerland circa 1917. (If his stories ramble, well, they’re meant to, “constant regression being the saving grace of senile reminiscence.”)
Henry may not have the makings of a great man, but he did have remarkable timing: His term in Zurich coincides with the residencies of the not-quite-yet-iconic Irish novelist Joyce (Peter McDonald), who is working on a little tome called Ulysses when he’s not busy mounting an amateur local production of Oscar Wilde’s Earnest; a Russian radical named Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, or as the history books will come to know him, Vladimir Lenin (Dan Butler); and the French-Romanian renegade poet Tristan Tzara (a wildly elastic Seth Numrich).
Suspended in a strange neutral pocket of Western Europe at the height of WWI, the characters — and they are all characters, in every sense of the word — dance in and out of one another’s public and private lives, weaving and flirting and diverting and digressing as they hold court on the nature of art and romance and politics. (In Stoppard’s world, Dada becomes not just the name of an avant-garde movement but a kind of shifting all-purpose onomatopoeia, applicable to any verb or adjective or exclamation).
As the plot spins on like a Catherine wheel, two women begin to emerge as real players in the narrative too: Sara Topham’s Cecily and Scarlett Strallen’s Gwendolyn, who aren’t just lovers or muses but loopy protagonists in their own right. They’re also the main instigators of the storyline’s surreal dip into musical theater (at one point a disco ball drops, and even the anachronistic glitter it throws off feel right).
Director Patrick Marber — himself a vaunted playwright (Closer, Don Juan in Soho) — keeps Stoppard’s verbal ballet moving briskly, occasionally slowing the action down just enough to let the narrative (and the audience) breathe. Travesties‘ ratatat bursts of farce and romance and political theory may be too discursive to ever quite nail down exactly what it’s all about, other than everything. Still, one line from early in the first act does seem especially apropos, even if it undersells the frenetic wonders within: “It may be nonsense, but at least it’s clever nonsense.” A–