Reprinted from yesterday's late editions
Verbal fireworks, mental gymnastics, theatrical hijinks and John Wood's bravura performance make Tom Stoppard's "Travesties" one of the decade's theater joys.
A London and New York prizewinner, "Travesties," which opened thursday night, has been restaged by the Kennedy Center for six weeks at the Eisenhower, with Peter Wood again directing this gloriously literate, imaginative excursion into fancy.
Stoppard gives us such characters as Lenin, James Joyce and Tristan Tzara, the Dadaist, with verbal scatterings from all three plus the characters and some incidents of Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Ernest." The more you know about any of these subjects, the more you will relish "Travesties," for Stoppard assumes that, despite evidence to the contrary, there are still people in this world who read, think and relish paradox and parody.
for those who have, as Stoppard's Cecily says, only "heard of" such matters, the program has a helpful author's note, page 38B, near the back of the book:
"Travesties" is a work of fiction which makes use, and misuse, of history. Scenes which are self-evidently documentary mingle with others which are just as evidently fantastical. People who were hardly aware of each other's existence are made to collide; real people and imaginary people are brought together without ceremony; and events which took place months, and even years, apart are presented as synchronous."
Henry Carr, the British consular official through whose memory these nonevents occur, begins as an old man recalling Zurich in 1917 but warns about "constant digression being the saving grace of senile reminiscence."
The part suggests the Fluidity of Time. Carr recalls some things he knows didn't happen, but wishes they had. Then the scene is repeated as it happened. Or did it?
On this framework, Stoppard tosses a constant stream of glittering lines you should be alert to catch:
"If Lenin did not exist, it would be unnecessary to invent him."
"War is capitalism with the gloves off."
"My art belongs to Dada. And my dada he treats it so. . . Well?"
"Irony among the lower orders is the first sign of a social consciousness."
"Even when there is war everywhere else, there is no war in Switzerland."
"A big oak from a corner room."
Such verbal goodies, puns, etc., demand the most precise kind of readings. That "oak" line, for instance, must be said, not read. They must not be hit with a bat for a homerun but must reach home nonetheless. Through the plot complications of Wilde's comedy, there is a mix-up of books (not babies), and so there is understandable mystery that an Irish writer should be pouring over Homer's Odyssey and the Dublin street directory of 1904.
the intricacies of Stoppard's sport make the mind swim. There is in "The Importance of Being Ernest" a butler named Lane. Stoppard calls him Bennett, gives him some speeches rather like Lane's and turns him into a spy. That comedy's Cecily and Gwendolyn have a famous meeting in a garden; Stoppard jazzes it up to the tune of "Oh, Mr. Gallagher, Oh, Mr. Shean." When the author of Ulysses is involved, we get limericks pouring from actor James Booth's greenvested chest. And then there's Lenin on freedom of the press: "Down with nonpartisan literature. We want to establish a free press. Free from individualism."
Wood's performance is a mosaic done with tiny diamonds. With only a hat, slippers and robe, he's Old Carr; seconds later he's a World War I peacock. Eyes and voice do the trick, a performance of such slippery, electric aplomb to leave you bug-eyed. How smart of the Kennedy Center to wait for "Travesties" until Wood was free to return to his unique, witty Carr!
Wood is a superlative actor, as the National's American premiere of "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" at least suggested nearly 10 years ago. (He played not Rosencrantz but, as Old Carr says, "the other one"). His last visit was as Sherlock Holmes, but adroit as that was, Stoppard writes lines screaming for speed and Wood has it to give.
With Booth repeating his Joyce of the original cast, the six other roles are in new but capable hands. Charles Kimbrough is especially dazzling as Tzara. I admired Lynne Lipton's Cecily particularly and Ronald Drake's punctilious Bennett. Katherine McGrath, Elzbieta Chezevska and Jack Bittner complete this lucky company. What fun it must be to toss those glittery lines in the air every evening!