Tom Stoppard's plays are still the gold standard for brilliance: funnier than Shaw, weightier than Wilde. His 1974 Travesties is a supersmart, super-theatrical tour de force challenging both actors and audiences, and plucky little Plays and Players sometimes meets that challenge and sometimes doesn't, but it's well worth a look.
It's a fact that during the Great War, James Joyce, Tristan Tzara, and Vladimir Lenin were all living in Zurich, but the intersections of their lives are mainly Stoppard's inventions. One Henry Carr, a functionary in the British consulate who actually performed in a production of The Importance of Being Earnest produced by Joyce, becomes Stoppard's vehicle. Carr reminisces (with his aging, unreliable memory) about those old days when revolutions — artistic and political — were changing the world, and those recollections appear before us.
As the young Henry Carr (Tim Rinehart) tells the daddy of Dada, Tzara (Eric Wunsch): "To be an artist at all is like living in Switzerland during a world war. But to be an artist in Zurich in 1917 implies a degree of self-absorption that would have glazed over the eyes of Narcissus."
The travesties in Travesties are endless: imported from Wilde's comedy, Cecily (the winning Kristen Norine) and Gwendolyn (Kaki Burns, the weak link in the cast) confront each other via a Gallagher-and-Sheen vaudeville bit, while Joyce (Bob Stineman), singing corny Irish too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ras, performs magic tricks. Lenin (Jim Ludovici) speechifies way too much, while his wife (the lovely Cathy Mostek, whose Russian sounds authentic) recalls their lives as they waltz. Dialogue parodies the catechism chapter in Ulysses, and there's a seduction scene where Shakespeare's "Sonnet 18," even chopped into Dadaist pieces, works its charm.
In a small, nearly silent role, Andrew Carroll, as the butler with revolutionary sympathies, is a standout; he seems to be the only one in the cast who understands subtlety, underplaying while everyone else is overplaying. This widespread excess is likely due to director Candace Cihocki, who exaggerates everything: voices too loud with too much stage business — leaping and jumping and stamping and high-fiving — occasionally turning this complex intellectual frolic into mere crude burlesque. That the accents (Russian, Romanian, Irish, British) are inconsistent doesn't help, either.
The play is made for a proscenium stage, and squashing it into the tiny, oddly shaped space on Plays and Players' third floor is a struggle. The messy set, designed by Vandy Scoates, makes no visual sense, and its attempts at playfulness, with moving panels and doors, have shoestring written all over them. The costumes (Jill Keys) are, with the exception of Joyce's mismatched suits, all wrong for the characters. Unlike many plays where little theaters can shine, Travesties is not amateur-friendly.
Theater Travesties Through June 23 at Plays & Players Theater, 1714 Delancey Place. Tickets $20-25. Information: www.playsandplayers.org or 800-595-4849.