At times, “Travesties” is as exhilarating as it is illuminating; at other times it is as exasperating as it is enervating. But there is always in this farcical fantasy a clear picture of how and why British playwright Tom Stoppard has earned his reputation for writing dazzling dramatic prose. From his early success with “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern” to his later more increasingly politically and socially complex plays as “The Coast of Utopia” trilogy, “Rock ’n Roll” and “Arcadia,” Stoppard has demonstrated his unique ability and his talent to provoke as well as to amuse.
“Travesties” is an early lyrical lark that was apparently inspired by the insufferably snooty silliness (sorry but that’s the way I feel about it) that consumes Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Despite its unwieldy structure and unnecessary length at close to three hours, “Travesties” is certainly an occasionally rib-tickling affair, thanks to the accommodating direction of Sam Buntrock, the McCarter’s director in residence this season. His contributions to this handsome, spectacularly designed production are notable for complimenting the guileless giddiness that more or less fills and defines the play. What more could you ask?
Whatever one says or feels about Stoppard’s ability to rib and ridicule in earnest in the Wildean fashion, “Travesties” is also somewhat of an endurance test. Beginning in 1974 and using the flash-back conceit, it purports to recapture and revive the unimportance of being Mr. Henry Carr (as played with a dashingly disarming insouciance by James Urbaniak), the carrying on of a somewhat delusional by-fashion-possessed gentleman who, when invalided out of the British army, takes up residence as a consular official in Zurich, Switzerland in 1917. That he finds himself fatefully entwined in the lives of ex-patriots and the like during the course of World War I, provides most of the fun, equally divided between the forced, the frenetic and the verbose.
The events during this period chronicle in un-chronological order the entrances and exits of the usual bizarre mixture of (Cole Porter-eat-your-heart-out) cocktail party types such as Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (alias Lenin, as played by a marvelous look-alike Demosthenes Chrysan) whom we discover is waiting for a train. Naturally, until he boards the train, we get about eight or ten hysterical and historical speeches on socialism as well as a hint that he might have been influenced by our anti-hero had he been introduced.
A more meaningful relationship is developed with the limerick-loving James Joyce (Fred Arsenault) who recruits Carr to play the role of Algernon in a local production of Earnest, providing he purchase his own trousers. Enter now the apostle of anti-art Tristan Tzara (Christian Coulson), the father of Dada, as in “My Heart Belongs to . . .” That Coulson works up a sweat bleating out a lot of boldly upheld bohemianism in a sort of thick-tongued Romanian accent in counterpoint to Lenin’s radicalism is a comical blast of hot air. His rants also tend to diminish Joyce’s excesses, particularly the posturing Irishman’s bright green shoes and hat. That then, of course, neutralizes Carr’s pointless life, which then climaxes in the realization that art, revolution, and life are essentially here to ridicule and amuse.
The point being, there is no point. If only Sigmund Freud and F. Scott Fitzgerald had walked into the room, it might have clarified everything. The most entertaining and laugh-provoking observations are made by Carr’s man-servant Bennett, as hilariously played by former Ridiculous Theatrical Company member, the rubbery faced Everett Quinton. Every day the increasingly inebriated Bennett brings the latest news of the outside world about which he proceeds to elaborately pontificate while serving the morning coffee.
Most of the action takes place within Carr’s Zurich hotel room and in a large public library, a spectacularly realized setting by designer David Farley that includes many moving parts, including a train that literally careens right through Farr’s breakfast room. Happily, the entire company appears to be relishing and reveling in this madcap affair. Among the more winsome, Susannah Flood charmed as Gwendolyn and Sara Topham was winning as Cecily, who gets extra marks for her unabashedly risqué (don’t ask) bumps and grinds. Working as a team, Gwendolyn and Cecily have a marvelously clever scene that they deliver in the patter style of the legendary vaudevillians Ed Gallagher and Al Sheen.
In contrast, Lenin’s wife Nadya, Lusia Strus recites her somber lines with a bit of cheekiness, a clue to the style that gives this production its primary asset. “Travesties” contains many allusions to other plays and literature and may prove wearisome to some. Many in the audience, however, were a to-the-university-born assemblage that never failed to pick up on all the smart-ass in-jokes. More of a dissertation than a play, it has, nevertheless, been beautifully staged with a distinct look of having been choreographed to a fare-thee-well, all to the good.
“Travesties” (through April 1), Matthews Theater at McCarter, 91 University Place, Princeton. For tickets ($20-$70) call 609-258-2787.