Tom Stoppard’s newest play Leopoldstadt is coming to New York, and once again he is being talked about as if he were the second coming of Shakespeare. His plays are rich and various—Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Arcadia and The Invention of Love among the most gorgeous. This early play, Travesties, is so stuffed full of history and literary allusions and aesthetic theories and political debates that it threatens to exhaust the audience.
Stoppard’s point of departure was the odd fact that in 1917 three major figures were living in Zurich: James Joyce, author of Ulysses (Anthony Lawton), Tristan Tzara, the founder of the anti-art movement, Dada (Dave Johnson) and Lenin, the Russian politician (Gregory Isaac). In real life they never met, but in this play their interactions are somehow woven into a travesty of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. The show’s most enjoyable moment is the Wildean/vaudevillian scene with Cecily (Campbell O’Hare) and Gwendolyn (Morgan Charece Hall).
All the complications—switched manuscripts, invented brothers— are made more ridiculous by Henry Carr (Leonard C. Haas), who was a real person, a very English and minor diplomatic functionary who once played Algernon in a production of the Wilde comedy. The entire play we’re watching takes place in his memory. But because he is old and his memory is failing, it’s impossible to tell what we’re to believe. A sly joke about classism in Britain is that Carr’s butler, Bennett (David Bardeen) was actually the Prime Minister.
Here is Stoppard’s eminently quotable comment on Travesties: “I want to marry the play of ideas to farce. Now that may be like eating steak tartare with chocolate sauce, but that’s the way it comes out. Everyone will have to decide for himself whether the seriousness is doomed or redeemed by the frivolity.” Although there are plenty of serious ideas in this production, there is a lack of genuine frivolity—the show should be lighter, the wit more buoyant, the giggles more irresistible. This leadenness comes from two fundamental errors: the play requires a proscenium stage which the Lantern’s stage can’t provide, and the play requires many accents which this cast sometimes can’t manage to make entirely intelligible. Charles McMahon bravely directs this tricky dish.
[Lantern Theater Company at St. Stephen’s Theater, 923 Ludlow St.] September 8-October 9, 2022; lanterntheater.org