‘Travesties’ runs through June 17 at the American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St., roundabouttheatre.org
Good luck making sense of “Travesties,” Tom Stoppard’s difficult, diffuse and dense 1974 comedy of faulty memory and early 20th century European history and culture, which has returned to Broadway in a robust revival produced originally by London’s Menier Chocolate Factory and brought to New York by the Roundabout Theatre Company.
Strangely enough, sitting through a great production of a challenging play such as “Travesties” can be far more frustrating than a bad production because it leaves you with no excuse for not tackling the play head on. You appreciate the play and want to enjoy it, but nevertheless often feel lost or left out in the cold, even after perusing the study guide in the playbill.
Henry Carr (Tom Hollander, unhinged and haunted), an elderly former government official, looks back on his experiences from decades earlier with the Romanian avant-gardist Tristan Tzara (Seth Numrich, flamboyant and freewheeling), Russian political revolutionary Vladimir Lenin (Dan Butler, resolute) and Irish novelist James Joyce (Peter McDonald, grouchy).
Stoppard (who has explored history, literature and philosophy with a critical eye in works such as “Arcadia” and “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead”) was inspired by the fact that Tzara, Lenin and Joyce lived in Zurich, Switzerland simultaneously in 1917.
Given that the events of the play closely resemble Oscar Wilde’s comedy “The Importance of Being Earnest” (which Carr once performed in, at the invitation of Joyce), one suspects that Carr’s memory is less than reliable, and Carr’s claim that he could have changed the course of history by preventing Lenin from sneaking back into Russia is less than credible.
The high-energy production (sharply directed by Patrick Marber, best known for writing the 1997 drama “Closer”) busts with big performances, lively physical activity (capitalizing on the giddy, randomly inserted song-and-dance sequences) and terrific comedic flow.
Tiring and invigorating at the same time, “Travesties” is not an easy work to take in by any stretch of the imagination. It is also long, running two hours and 40 minutes. But all things considered, it is hard to imagine a better production of it coming along anytime soon, and how do you get to complain about a play being too smart?