Tom Stoppard is a brilliant writer, of that there is no doubt. But his plays are either intellectually stimulating or a slog, depending on your interests and comprehension skills. "Travesties" is one of his more challenging works, featuring a barrage of references — both familiar and obscure — rattled off in a hail of outrageously witty wordplay.
Zurich, Switzerland in 1917 happened to be a place and time where a lot of influential people gathered World War I. Among them were the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin and the famed novelist James Joyce. Another notable name: Tristan Tzara, who co-founded the anti-art movement known as Dada. At the time, an Englishman named Henry Carr was actually involved in a lawsuit with Joyce over a production of "The Importance of Being Earnest." They are the principal characters in the play, as told in flashback by way of the elderly Carr's flagging memory. Got that?
They are real, of course, but their interactions are imagined in a series of scenes, delivered nonsensically at times, featuring lengthy monologues, silly ditties, even stretches of gibberish.
Deciphering all of this is nearly impossible, but there is enlightenment at the end of this farcical tunnel. Stoppard offers much to ponder about the intersection of art, commerce, and politics. And in between the constant digressions, we get such pointed observations as "War is capitalism with gloves off."
Director Patrick Marber must be commended for enlivening the high-brow farce with delightfully madcap interludes.
The performances are striking. The ability alone to memorize and recite all that madcap material is impressive enough. But these multi-talented thespians do it with such zesty effortlessness, they make it all seem like so much fun.
It's quite possible that you're going to be hopelessly lost in "Travesties." And that's why a guide in your Playbill will be essential reading. But if it still doesn't help, your brain may just thank you for the workout.