Theatre critic Irene Backalenick covers theatre for national and regional publications. She has a Ph.D.in theatre criticism from City University Graduate Center. Her book "East Side Story--Ten Years with the Jewish Repertory Theatre" (based on her doctoral thesis) won a first-place national book award in history. Other awards in journalism and theatre criticism include a New York Times Publishers Award (received while writing for The New York Times). Her professional organizations include the American Theatre Critics Association, Association for Jewish Theatre, Outer Critics Circle (on the executive board), Drama Desk, Actors Equity Derwent Committee, and the Connecticut Critics Circle e-mail: IreneBack@aol.com Web : www.nytheaterscene.com
Travesties -The Long Wharf Theatre
By Tom Stoppard
Directed by Gregory Boyd
Scenic Design By Neil Patel
Costume Design By Judith Dolan
Lighting Design By Rui Rita
Sound Design By John Gromada
On the Mainstage May 4 - June 5, 2005
When is a Jewish playwright a Jewish playwright? That is the question. Tom Stoppard was born Tomas Straussler in Zlin, Czechoslovakia, in 1937. His Jewish family escaped the Nazis by fleeing to Singapore, where his father was killed in the Japanese invasion. His mother later remarried Kenneth Stoppard, a major in the British army, and the family resettled in England. Thus Tomas Straussler became Tom Stoppard, and England’s most important contemporary playwright was born.
One searches vainly for Jewish themes or characters in Stoppard’s works, but one cannot deny his strong interest in history, literature, physics, international affairs, his devastating brand of humor, and his formidable use of language. One might make a case for those being Jewish traits.
In any event, the Stoppard plays are mounted round the world, and, at the moment, his “Travesties” is on stage at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.
To be properly prepared for “Travesties,” one should definitely read the play in advance. Moreover, a working acquaintance with Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” is imperative, not to mention some knowledge of James Joyce’s “Ulysses.”
Unfortunately, most people do not read texts in advance, and Stoppard’s lines—often brilliant and hilarious—are likely to fly over their heads. Stoppard has a way of incorporating and building upon the works of others, with never a qualm or apology. Moreover, he interweaves history with fiction, past with present, playing fast and loose with time. In the process he sounds off on art, politics, life, love, and the result, in this case, is a zany roller coaster ride.
“Travesties,” to be specific, is a memory piece. An old man, one Henry Carr, looks back upon his years in Zurich, Switzerland. The play moves between the crotchety old Carr of 1972, trying imperfectly to remember the past, and his youthful self of 1917. In Zurich of those war years, the city was crowded with intellectuals and artists of every stripe, refugees from the surrounding countries at war. Stoppard draws on the historic facts that James Joyce, Vladimir Lenin, and Tristan Tzara (founder of the Dadaist art movement) were indeed in Zurich at the time. He adds to the mix two attractive young women, whom he names Gwendolyn and Cecily (names Oscar Wilde fans will recognize).
One must respect Stoppard’s formidable talent, but does “Travesties” work as a play? In our view, no. What is certainly lacking is a through-line. This is not a piece that goes some place, where a viewer waits eagerly to see what will happen next. Though Lenin’s story is clearly depicted, it does not constitute the very core of “Travesties,” but is merely one of the side shows.
Yet, whatever the play lacks, this particular production supplies in spades. Director Gregory Boyd has turned “Travesties” into a lively three-ring circus, with unexpected dance numbers, vaudeville tunes, strip-tease acts, and even an all-out pie-in-your-face routine. But with all of this, Boyd keeps it firmly under control and brings it off with grace and elegance. Moreover, he is blessed with a fine cast.
In all, this almost three-hour show (with a first act that runs about an hour and a half) can be heavy-going, particularly if one is not in touch with Stoppard’s witty lines. But the music hall atmosphere and first-rate performances may provide theatergoers with enough compensation.
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Tom Hewitt - Tristan Tzara, Sam Waterston - Henry Carr.
Maggie Lacey - Cecily
Don Stephenson - James Joyce
Cheryl Lynn Bowers - Gwendolyn
Center front: Gregor Paslawsky - Lenin, Isabel Keating - Nadya, Tom Hewitt - Tristan Tzara. Center back: Cheryl Lynn Bowers - Gwendolyn, Maggie Lacey - Cecily