Travesties at Lantern Theater

The year is 1917. The place is Zurich, Switzerland. World War I is raging. Henry Carr, a British consular official is thinking about his time there when he encountered the communist revolutionary, Vladimir Lenin, the great modernist author, James Joyce, and Tristan Tzara, a founder and leader of the Dada movement, an anti-establishment artistic style that began that year.

Written and produced in England in 1974, “Travesties” won The Tony Award and the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for best play when it was produced on Broadway in 1975. Lantern Theater Company planned to run the play two years ago, but the covid pandemic prevented that. Now, they are presenting it as the opener of their 2022-2023  season.

            The play is a kind of a memoir by Carr as he recalls events as well as he can remember them from some 50 years before. As a result, there are often two or three renderings of the same event. It is not a historical representation of what happened, but a distracted story of how he sees Lenin, Tzara, and Joyce in Zurich. In fact, Carr did perform as Algernon in Joyce’s amateur production of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Whether he ever met Lenin or Tzara is left for the audience to decide.

            Nevertheless, Carr’s memory is full of bravado. Of Lenin, he says “I knew him well.” Of Tzara, he tells us he is often asked about the man. Of Joyce, he recalls an absurd conversation full of comedic rhymes. He doesn’t think much of Lenin’s revolutionary spirit, of Tzara’s absurdist approach to art, or of Joyce’s writing. But in various retellings of the story, he compromises his own ideals in order to win the affection of the beautiful, Cecily.

            The stories of each of the men are fascinating. In a way, it is a history lesson for the audience. But that is also the most difficult thing about the play. It is almost three hours long with one intermission. Will today’s audiences sit through such a long play with so much exposition? To be honest, I found it challenging myself, particularly the lengthy first act- 90 minutes. Leonard C. Haas as Carr goes on and on and on. He talks fast and it is tedious and tiresome. He is talking at us, not to us and though the play is punctuated with many humorous, many clever lines, it needs to be delivered in a more realistic manner.

            Then, Tzara (Dave Johnson) enters and the tiresome monologue becomes a tiresome dialogue. As I listened, I could hear the brilliance of Stoppard’s words, but I wish more attention in this production was paid to the subtleties and insightful observations of the playwright. The heaviness of the play was finally lifted with the entrance of Joyce. Tony Lawton made James Joyce real for me. He had a naturalness that engaged me whenever he spoke. Lenin (Gregory Isaac) and his wife Nadya (Lee Minora) were also effective and real.

            The real treat of the play was Campbell O’Hare as Cecily. While she is the foil for Henry, she is much more. She is sharp-witted, edgy, funny, and also the target of Henry’s affections, but she has passions of her own. She is a delight to watch as her relationship with Henry is told again and again and again.. The cast is strong when they act as an ensemble, but Director Charles McMahon needs to get more from them  when they are lecturing each other and  “educating” the audience.

            If it was confusing at times, we know it was just as confusing for Henry, who says at the end, “I learned three things in Zurich during the war. I wrote them down. Firstly, you’re either a revolutionary or you’re not, and if you’re not you might as well be an artist as anything else. Secondly, if you can’t be an artist, you might as well be a revolutionary… I forget the third thing.”

            A postscript: Lantern Theater must be applauded for an amazing playbill. It is full of most interesting information, which if you can’t read it before the show, you must read it after.

“Travesties” at Lantern Theater Co., St. Stephen’s Theater, 10th & Ludlow Streets, Phila., PA 19107, 215-829-0395, Thru October 9, 2022.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: