By William Wolf

BROADWAY BY THE YEAR--THE MUSICALS OF 1956 & 1975  Send This Review to a Friend

In 1956 there was “My Fair Lady” and in 1975 there was “A Chorus Line,” just two of the shows covered in the latest of the “Broadway By the Year “ series created, written, directed and hosted by Scott Siegel and presented by The Town Hall last night (May 21, 2018). As one has come to expect, a superb array of performers assembled to interpret various Broadway songs of those chosen years.

There were robust male voices and strong female voices, with emphasis on individuality that made for freshness. As customary, Siegel provided amusing and informative background notes about what else was going on in the world and about the up-or-down fates of the various productions.

Maxine Linehan bounded on stage with so much energy to sing “I Could Have Danced All Night” from “My Fair Lady” that she made one believe she really could have. A renowned interpreter with a wide range, she also distinguished herself with excellent renditions of “It’s All Right With Me” from “Mr. Wonderful”(1956) and “The Only Home I Know” from “Shenandoah” (1975).

“The Wiz” (1975, a show that gave birth to Sidney Lumet’s movie version, was thrillingly represented by Cheryl Freeman singing “Home.”

Good looking and affable Kyle Selig opened the show with charm, singing “On the Street Where You Live” from “My Fair Lady,” and he also contributed the more difficult and complex “It Must Be So” from “Candide” (1956). Douglas Ladnier, who has an impressive leading man voice, wowed the audience with “Just in Time” from the 1956 “Bells Are Ringing,” “Joey, Joey, Joey” from “The Most Happy Fella,” also 1956, and “Cat’s in the Cradle” from “The Night That Made America Famous” (1975).

If there were a prize for the most unusual solo of the night, it would have to go to Oakley Boycott, who for starters is unusual herself—tall, slim and beautiful and cutting a stage presence like no other. She took the number “Is It a Crime?” from “Bells Are Ringing” and turned it into a mix of drama, comedy, high style and a range of body movements that added up to a show-stopper.

Carolee Carmello, an accomplished Broadway veteran, put her own zing into the “I’m Going Back” highlight from “Bells Are Ringing,” heralding liberation from being an answer service operator and returning to the “Bonjour Tristesse Brassiere Company” –“and a little modeling on the side”--accenting it by pushing up her bust in a final gesture. Carmello gave an intriguing interpretation of “Nothing” from “A Chorus Line” and “What I Did for Love” from the same show as the night’s closing number, with backing from the entire company.

Another “A Chorus Line” choice, “I Can Do That,” was sung and tap-danced with footwork wizardry by Joshua Israel, who also sang and tapped his way through “All I Care About” from “Chicago” (1975), doing his own choreography for both. Try tap-dancing on your toes.

Also in the specialty department, the robust, full-of-style and pizzazz Lance Roberts earned applause with his “Too Close for Comfort” from “Mr. Wonderful” and the rousing and especially entertaining “Gimme Me a Pigfoot (and a Bottle of Beer)” from “Me and Bessie” (1975). His outfits were undeniably the flashiest of the night.

Usually in these concerts there is a number sung as it used to be on Broadway without a mike. That accomplishment was fulfilled by Luke Grooms, who has the voice penetrating enough to pull it off, exemplified by his “My Heart is So Full of You” from “The Most Happy Fella.” He also effectively sang the “Rodgers & Hart” (1975) number “Johnny One Note,” this one with a mike.

The wide range of songs and styles required the ingenuity of musical director Ross Patterson, also on the piano, with Tom Hubbard on bass and Dave Silliman on drums, all deservingly acknowledged by Siegel. Other contributors were Holly Cruz, staging consultant; Carl Acampora, stage manager; Rick Hinkson, assistant director and assistant stage manager, and Joe Burke, production assistant. At the Town Hall, 123 West 43rd Street. Reviewed May 22, 2018.

PARADISE BLUE  Send This Review to a Friend

Dominique Morisseau’s “Paradise Blue,” a Signature Theatre presentation, begins before the flashback with a trumpet solo and a gunshot, a clear forecast of violence to come. When it does arrive at the end, the action is so thoroughly out of character with the shooter that the result is jarring in terms of making sense as well as for its shock value. Fortunately, most of the in-between is entertaining, dramatic, often humorous and thoroughly well-acted by a superb cast giving its all.

The action is set in 1949 Detroit in the Paradise Club in an area once known as Blackbottom on a downtown strip called Paradise Valley. The author, who grew up in Detroit, has in effect written an ode to what once was a favorite jazz and blues center before all went downhill. In a sense the conclusion is a symbolic killing of a time and place as well as of an individual. If only the action made character sense too.

The owner of the club is Blue, played by J. Alphonse Nicholson, a trumpeter who is haunted by demons stemming from his troubled family background and his fear that he is losing his touch as a musician. He has been secretly negotiating for the sale of the club, which he inherited from his father. Kristolyn Lloyd is excellent as his all-around helper and girlfriend Pumpkin, who loves him but doesn’t want to leave family and friends and accompany him on a change of scene to Chicago, where he hopes to get a fresh start. Blue is thoroughly wrapped up in himself and his emotional and professional problems.

This leads to trouble with fellow band members Keith Randolph Smith as the somewhat larger-than-life and congenial Corn and Francois Battiste as the often funny but troubled P-Sam. They become involved in a desire to buy the club and build upon it, while Blue is going his own route. Always underlying is the feeling that black musicians need their own space to counter the racism in the world ruled by white musicians and entrepreneurs.

Into this entourage walks Simone Missick as Silver. And what a walk she has. She is sexy and slinky, oozing a perpetual come-on as she rents a room upstairs. The mere demand for the lighting of a cigarette from Corn is fraught with sexual tension, and it is no surprise that she and Corn wind up in her bed and in a relationship.

Silver is certainly a weird role model for the impressionable Pumpkin, who is given to reciting poetry and at one point, in making up Silver’s room, tries on her sexy undies and tries to act like Silver before mirror. It is all very amusing, but she also discovers a gun in Silver’s drawer and later reluctantly accepts a lesson from Silver in how to use it as a method of women’s empowerment.

Both women give excellent performances, and it is a tribute to Missick as Silver that she eventually telegraphs deep unrest and desperation beneath her outward sexual bravado and stunning looks. Credit author Morisseau too for her multi-level writing even though the play’s ending seems tacked on rather than integral.

Director Ruben Santiago-Hudson maintains an atmosphere of dramatic tension combined with humor derived from the characterizations. Neil Patel’s design for the club, with a bar at one end of the broad stage, the upstairs bedroom at the other end, and an audience seated on each side of the playing area works splendidly.

But the production’s main attribute, stemming, of course, from Morisseau’s character collection, is the combination of performances that come from the excellent, well-chosen five cast members who can keep us enthralled even through the play’s assorted weak spots. At the Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street. Phone: 212-244-7529. Reviewed May 19, 2018.

ME AND MY GIRL (ENCORES!)  Send This Review to a Friend

Fans of the New York City Center Encores!, celebrating its 25th year, are consistently tuned into its mission of reviving past shows that have contributed to the history of theater. It isn’t a question of how good those shows once were, but of taking a fresh look at them, and presenting as satisfying a rediscovery as possible. In the case of “Me and My Girl,” Encores! has lavished a spiffy production ( May 9-13, 2018) with a winsome cast on the musical in a manner that shows why it was so popular originally and in revival. The ingredients mesh to provide delight for audiences curious to look into a corner of the theatrical past.

Yes, the book may be corny, a characteristic of so many good musicals, but the acting, the songs, the lyrics, the choreography, the staging and the ever-enticing performance by the large Encores! Orchestra are a revelation and reflect the changes made along the way since the original 1937 London production with music by the once-popular Noel Gay. The book and lyrics are by L. Arthur Rose and Douglas Furber, with the book revised by Stephen Fry with contributions by Mike Ockrent. In the process of the show’s evolvement, some original songs were jettisoned and other numbers by Gay were included.

As noted in the Playbill in an article by music director Rob Berman, the show’s number “The Lambeth Walk” touched off a dance craze in England. After a London revival in 1985, “Me and My Girl” was brought to Broadway in 1986, and it was a hit that ran for 1420 performances. Now Encores! audiences have been given a chance to see what the fuss was about in a staging far more than a concert revival, virtually a full-scale mounting directed with taste and insight by Warren Carlyle, who also provides dazzling choreography. The costume design by Emilio Sosa ranges from period-gorgeous to comedy-oriented flashiness.

Much of the fun is provided by Christian Borle, who is uproariously funny with his excellent timing in getting off zinger lines, plus his gift for broad, physical comedy. Here he plays Bill Snibson the mischievous Lambeth cut-up who is suddenly informed that he descends from the upper class and inherits wealth and a title. The plot, of course, satirizes the rich and mighty, with gaudily-dressed and amusingly ill-mannered Snibson shaking up their lives. There is also a crisis regarding his relationship with the woman he loves, Sally Smith, played and sung impressively and with charm by Laura Michelle Kelly, who doesn’t fit into the snobbish society.

There is also the enjoyable, sexy performance by Lisa O’Hare as Lady Jaqueline Carstone, who early on rebuffs the amusing Mark Evans as the indebted Hon. Gerald Bolingbroke, as she sings “Thinking of No One But Me” and vows to marry only for money. What O’Hare does with her legs and lithe figure in assorted gyrations is a sight to behold.

Wait--the busy plot has yet another romance to be resolved. Harriet Harris portrays Maria, Duchess of Dene, who takes it upon herself to try to educate Snibson, and has long been admired by Chuck Cooper as Sir John Tremayne, who will eventually try to get up courage to propose.

There are other aristocrats in the large cast including Simon Jones tippling as Lord Battersby and Suzanne Douglas as Lady Battersby, plus assorted servants and members of the company, most of whom get plenty of opportunity to join in singing the tuneful numbers of composer Gay.

The working out of the plot threads is merely the mechanism on which to hang the entertaining songs, including, for example. “Me and My Girl,” “You Would If You Could,” “Hold My Hand,” “Once You Lose Your Heart,” “The Sun Has Got His Hat On,” “Take It on the Chin,” “Love Makes the World Go Round” and “Leaning on a Lamp-Post.”

Scenic designer Allen Moyer has done a remarkable job with lean indicators that convey the required set-ups, such as a manor house backdrop, a major door entranceway, a winding staircase, the aforementioned lamp-posts and assorted furniture moved on and off stage. Rob Berman conducts the orchestra, which always is a main attraction in Encores! productions and is customarily visible throughout. Overall, this well-deserved and attractive revival of “Me and My Girl” has been particularly showered with enticing inventiveness and know-how. At New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street. Reviewed May 13, 2018.

MLIMA'S TALE  Send This Review to a Friend

Lynn Nottage has written a powerful play, creatively performed by a superb cast and spellbindingly directed by Jo Bonney. “Mlima’s Tale” takes aim at the wonton destruction of elephants for profit in the ivory trade, and it succeeds by combining impressionism and reality to make for a unique theater experience.

Mlima, a grand and mighty elephant, is embodied by the remarkable Sahr Ngaujah, who uses his sinewy body to convey the majesty and nobility of an imposing example of an endangered species hunted down for greed. Nottage’s play is based on the article “The Ivory Highway” by Damon Tabor. There is an hypnotic score by Justin Hicks, who also performs as the accompanying musician, and the spartan scenic design by Riccardo Hernandez relies on sliding panels to cover and uncover the action.

In addition to Ngaujah as Mlima, there are three players, Kevin Mambo, Jojo Gonzalez and Ito Aghayere, who handle an assortment of roles dealing with the hunting, the corrupt selling of ivory and the crass wealthy who pay big money to possess the rare spoils derived from the slaughter.

The players are very versatile, but the show’s magic rests largely on the impressionistic portrayal of Mlima. A scene in which we are meant to experience the tearing apart of the murdered elephant is wrenching, thanks to the magisterial physicality of Ngaujah and his balletic artistry.

Nottage has had various achievements, such as “Sweat” and “Ruined,” but this work is in a class by itself for its concept and integration of unusual theatrical elements. Hovering as part of the staging is the imagery denoting the tragic fate of Mlima, and in parts Ngaujah stands as a towering sculpture to keep Mlima symbolically in our vision.

This is one of the season’s most essential and meaningful productions, with an impact far beyond its 80-minute intermission-less length. At the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street. Phone: 212-967-7555. Reviewed May 10, 2018.

THE ICEMAN COMETH  Send This Review to a Friend

The role of the salesman Hickey (Theodore Hickman) in Eugene O’Neill’s classic “The Iceman Cometh” has been a mountain to climb for ambitious actors. My favorites of those I have seen are Jason Robards Jr. (number one) and next, Kevin Spacey. Now Denzel Washington has given it his shot, and although for a while he shows the required bluster but doesn’t hint at much underneath, when it comes to Hickey’s tell-all scene about himself, Washington delivers with shattering soulful nakedness that not only reveals the hypocrisy, pain and derangement in his character but cements the hopelessness that O’Neill provides in his play of utter despair. At that point it is an extraordinary performance.

It helps that under the direction of George C. Wolfe Washington is seated directly facing his audience. Although the speech is being delivered to the pathetic liquor-soaked crowd in the barroom, by facing us Washington makes the confession seems much more personal. But he and not the stagecraft makes the lengthy sequence work with such devastation. As Hickey reveals himself to be warped with self-dellusion covering a hideous act, he is to be both pitied and reviled.

In the play that is nearly four hours long—but never did I wish to escape—the boozers await Hickey as their outwardly bon vivant who always nurtures their hopes whenever he turns up. When all of this proves to be a façade and it is revealed that his life is in even worse shape than theirs, the bleakness seems insurmountable. At one point in the play Hickey has urged the lot to try to go forth into the world. We know that those who do will quickly be back in the bar.

The large cast is composed of excellent actors who stake out their personalities, whether they are a pimp bartender and his hookers, or the more philosophical whose dreams of a better society have long been shattered. Especially effective are David Morse as the tortured Larry Slade and Colm Meaney as the ironically named Harry Hope, for whom a birthday party is thrown, and who by the time Hickey gives his confession is so stepped in whisky that he doesn’t give a damn about listening to it all.

Santo Loquasto’s barroom is shown from different angles to highlight individual scenes. Ann Roth, who has designed some gorgeous costumes in her career, here excels with being downbeat, even to the point of a clumsy-fitting suit for Hickey, and the floozy outfits for the hookers.

There are those who shun a play of this length, and don’t want to wallow in O’Neill’s depressed view of society. But this is one of O’Neill’s major works, and it is rewarding to see it performed anew, especially with Washington making his bid to make the renowned role his own. At the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre. 242 West 45th Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed May 9, 2018.

SAINT JOAN  Send This Review to a Friend

George Bernard Shaw’s “Saint Joan” is getting a sterling revival in this Manhattan Theatre Club production illuminatingly directed by Daniel Sullivan. The big question is how effective is Condola Rashad in the challenging role of Joan. The answer: very effective, and ultimately extremely moving. Rashad’s Joan is impressive indeed.

She is all militant and determined as the young woman destined for sainthood, who hears voices and believes she is a messenger for God in encouraging the French to fight hard against the English in the year 1429. There is fire in her eyes as she passionately expresses her faith in the face of doubters.

Rashad handles Shaw’s dialogue with utmost clarity and meaning. There is nothing ethereal about her interpretation and manner. She is totally committed and a powerful organizer, yet with a vibrant personality that makes her likable despite her constant religious proselytizing and confrontational demeanor with those whom she seeks to mobilize.

Only toward the end when brought to trial does her vulnerability show as she collapses in temporary belief that her faith has been misguided, and we see a woman whose life has been shattered. Rashad touches our hearts. But as Shaw dramatizes so poignantly, the rebel in her reasserts itself after she refuses to take the way out offered by the French collaborators and the English. Joan learns that after signing a recantation that instead of going free she will be condemned to a life in prison. Joan tears up her recantation and reasserts her faith despite the price of the horrible death by fire that awaits her.

Shaw tops his play with an epilogue 25 years later as Joan, a lively ghost from the past, visits the aging Dauphin, Charles VII, played both in youth and older by the excellent Adam Chanler-Berat, as if in his dream. She gets into bed to lie beside him as they talk. Soon others from the past show up, and Shaw’s dialogue reveals the hypocrisy of how Joan was unjustly tried but posthumously vindicated and guilty consciences cleansed by the church making her a saint, the news brought by a visitor from the future.

The production is filled with worthy performances, including that of Patrick Page as Robert de Baudricourt and then doubling as The Inquisitor, John Glover as the Archbishop of Rheims, Jack Davenport as the Earl of Warwick and by numerous others.

The set design by Scott Pask consists of one large assembly of hanging golden tubes that resemble a gigantic, all-embracing pipe organ. There are some attention-grabbing projections along the way designed by Christopher Ash. The play is elaborately costumed by Jane Greenwood, which helps to make us feel we are back in the 15th century.

Most importantly, I came away hoping that Rashad receives the proper recognition due for her scaling the dramatic heights inherent in Shaw’s work with a profound and moving acting achievement. At the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed May 5. 2018.

UNEXPECTED JOY  Send This Review to a Friend

The York Theatre Company has had a justified success with its entertaining “Desperate Measures,” about to go into a new run. It should have another hit with its latest musical, “Unexpected Joy,” with book and lyrics by Bill Russell, music by Janet Hood, direction by Amy Anders Corcoran and musical direction by Beth Falcone. Everything clicks, with a believable plot, a cast of four who can really sing as well as act and a four-musician band that gives the show further oomph.

Fortunately much of the story, set on Cape Cod, is told in song, although often funny dialogue is required to resolve issues and convey the message that coming together by people with opposing views is what’s needed these days. The plot gets very personal.

In a nutshell, the story involves the splendid Luba Mason as Joy, a free-spirited singer who is about to stage a concert in memory of her late beloved partner in music and life. Joy is now about to enter a lesbian marriage with the dynamic Allyson Kaye Daniel as Lou, an outspoken, often amusingly acerbic African-American, and the two are deeply in love. Rachel, Joy’s estranged daughter, played by the superb Courtney Balan, on Cape Cod for a rare visit, is married to a right-wing, Bible-thumping televised minister who spews racist comments and thinks gays are sinful, and Rachel is on his wavelength. Enter Rachel’s 18-year-old daughter, Tamara, played with spirit by Celeste Rose, who, unbeknownst to her controlling mother, writes songs and sings, is bursting with efforts at independence and thus is infatuated with and inspired by her unconventional grandmother. What will Rachel do when she finds out about her mother’s impending marriage?

All is charmingly staged, and as the plot unfolds, it is laced with catchy musical numbers defining the characters. When granddaughter Tamara, looking and acting so innocent, bursts into her “Like a Good Girl” song with its sexy moves and lyrics, she is a show-stopper. The number, as performed by Rose, is so good that it could also be a show-stopper on Broadway or anywhere else.

Mason has a knockout voice with a wide range, evident when she sings “I Don’t Want to Get Married” and duets with Daniel as Lou, who can also power a song, in “Unexpected Joy.” Balan as Rachel also has her big moment, when she sings “Raising Them Right.” In a follow-up to her first coup Rose has a different kind of song that shows off her voice and talent—“When Will I Have My Own?”

Bringing Joy and Rachel together is a bit of a stretch, but it is done wittily, with each sticking to one’s own beliefs. And when the cast segues into the final number “Common Ground,” the impact is exciting.

There is considerable cleverness in the lyrics and the music in varied styles is consistently appealing. The musicians include Beth Falcone as pianist and conductor, Brian Hamm on bass, Jack Morer on guitar and Jeff Potter on drums. At the York Theater Company at Saint Peter’s, 54th Street at Lexington Avenue. Phone: 212-935-5820. Reviewed May 4, 2018.

SUMMER AND SMOKE  Send This Review to a Friend

Although Marin Ireland gives a riveting performance as Alma Winemiller, the repressed, disappointed and conflicted unmarried woman in the Tennessee Williams play “Summer and Smoke,” the bare-bones production presented by Classic Stage Company and Transport Group is more like a dramatic reading than a full-fledged mounting.

The staging is bereft of all atmospherics under the minimalist direction by Jack Cummings III. I also have trouble with the audience set-up in this revival. Spectators are seated on three sides, and in one important and deeply emotional scene involving Alma and the tortured and elusive John Buchanan, on whom she has had a crush since childhood, Marin’s back was turned toward my seating section and I was deprived of the opportunity to see her facial expressions. As visible in other scenes, Ireland’s expressions are a most impressive aspect of her acting prowess.

Where is all this taking place? The program informs us that the location is Glorious Hill, Mississippi at the turn of the century through 1916. We have to take its word, as the action might just as well be occurring in a reading at a Manhattan rehearsal studio. Much audience imagination is required.

Fortunately, the acting does justice to Williams’s characters and plot. Phillip Clark excels as John’s disapproving doctor-father. Elena Hurst is excellent and appropriately sexy as Rosa Gonzalez, John’s girlfriend with whom he is about to run off.

T. Ryder Smith is convincingly uptight as Reverend Winemiller, Alma’s father, and Barbara Walsh impresses as her over-the-top, loopy mother.

The most famous portrayal of Alma was that of Geraldine Page in the 1952 Broadway production. Fortunately a 1961 film was made with Page in the starring role with Laurence Harvey as co-star, which gives those too young to have seen her on stage a chance to buy or rent the film and savor her acting.

Ireland certainly makes her own strong mark in the role, even in this scaled-down production. And the poetic sensibility of Tennessee Williams comes through in various patches of dialogue, especially at the end when Alma, all hope with John having collapsed, seductively attracts a traveling salesman (Ryan Spahn). At Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street. Phone: 866-811-4111. Reviewed May 4, 2018.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF WOMEN  Send This Review to a Friend

The title of Alan Ayckbourn’s “A Brief History of Women,” part of the current Brits Off Broadway series, is misleading. Don’t expect a concentration on women and their history. What you will get is a helping of Ayckbourn’s gift for creating amusing and sometimes poignant characters and putting them in odd situations that can be entertaining as well as meaningful, especially when he is also the director as is the case here.

Of the four periods covered in separate scenes—really short plays-- making up the whole, the first, set in 1925 in Kirkbridge Manor, a large home, is the best. It also offers some insight into the plight of women at the time. Frances Marshall gives a strong portrayal of Lady Caroline Kirkbridge, the attractive wife of Lord Edward Kirkbridge (Russell Dixon), who is a nasty creature with little regard for his wife. We learn from his conversation over heavy drinking with Captain Fergus Ffluke (Laurence Pears), due to marry Lady Cynthia, Caroline’s daughter (Laura Matthews), that Lord Edwards's property and money when he dies will not go to his wife.

Thus at his death, which will come sooner than he thinks, his wife would be left without money, a condition for women in that era. Lord Edward comes across as such a louse that when he is stricken with a heart attack the situation seems hilarious rather than tragic. The story is brightened y the presence of 17-year-old Spates, a footman (Antony Eden), lured by the sex-starved Lady Caroline into a hot kiss, The shocked expression on Lady Cynthia’s face when she walks in on them is worth the whole scene. Louise Shuttleworth portrays Captain Ffluke’s mother.

It turns out that Spates is the only character who is followed in all segments with Eden playing him excellently at various stages of his life. The play also follows what happens to the manor house. In Part 2, set in 1945, it is a preparatory school for girls. In Part 3, in 1965, it has become an arts center. In Part 4, 1985, it has morphed into the Kirkbridge Manor Hotel, with Spates, now 77 as its former manager.

What we get steadily is the excellent, versatile six-member cast, adept at shifting into very different roles. There are also observations about class and relations between men and women. In fact, this play is as much about the lives of men as the lives of women. While it is not the best among the 80 or so plays Ayckbourn has written, it does have the sort of entertaining ingredients, including witty and sometimes broad comedy, and penetrating dialogue that one so often finds in his work. At 59E59 Theater A, 59 East 59th Street. Phone 212-279-4200. Reviewed May 3, 2018.

TRAVESTIES  Send This Review to a Friend

Tom Stoppard is a playwright with a fertile imagination and daring, which has been proven repeatedly by his various plays. Roundabout Theatre Company’s current revival of Stoppard’s “Travesties” illustrates his ingenuity anew. This mounting, which originated at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London and is being presented by Roundabout in association with Chocolate Factory Productions and Sonia Friedman Productions, offers audiences a rollicking good time with an intellectual perspective wrapped in theater of the absurd.

Stoppard cleverly mixes riffs on history, culture, prominent figures and sex. He jumps back and forth between time frames-- 1917 and some 50 years later. There are serious observations and playful ones, with much hilarity involved and accented under the broad direction by Patrick Marber. Tim Hatley’s set design consists mainly of a huge, cluttered multi-tiered library within the walls of which the hell-raising occurs.

The take-off point is Zurich, 1917, and the play is framed via the memory of Henry Carr, a British consul played by the remarkable Tom Hollander. We see him in his dotage struggling to recall events during the year when Vladimir Lenin (Dan Butler), James Joyce (Peter McDonald) and Tristan Tzara (Seth Numrich) were in Zurich at the same time. When time flips back we see Carr as a young man, and by the end of the play we see him elderly again, touchingly struggling to remember the past as he attempts to dispense wisdom.

Stoppard is a master at interweaving his characters, much to our amusement, and he has poet Tzara, the Dadist in the mix, giving an enjoyably over-the-top performance during which he joyfully proclaims “Dada, Dada, Dada, Dada.” Stoppard has another ploy, taking off on Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” by inserting two women into the mayhem--the competing Cecily, delightfully played with an abundance of versatile talent by Sara Topham, and Gwendolen, exuberantly portrayed by the talented Scarlett Strallen.

It would be a mistake to think of Stoppard as only highbrow. How else would one explain his reaching back into America’s vaudeville age to the popular act of Gallagher and Shean and their signature format of singing “Good Morning, Mr. Gallagher, Good Morning, Mister Shean.” In a highlighted, entertaining segment to the tune of their trademark tune Stoppard inserts a musical face-off between Cecily and Gwendolen. They’re so good they could take their show on the road.

The historical and literary frolicking doesn’t mask the underlying seriousness of Stoppard’s pointing to Lenin’s hope for a better society, the waste of lives in World War I and the failure of it to end all wars. Culture is a major force meant to elevate humankind and give voice to genius. Hollander does a very special job of tying all together with sensitivity along with his comedy in the character of Carr. Others in the cast contributing importantly include Opal Alladin as Lenin’s wife and Patrick Kerr as the suave Bennett, Carr’s servant, who repeatedly delivers the morning papers and recites the important, generally depressing news of the day. Sound familiar?

I did mention sex, best epitomized by a moment in which Gwendolen, seated at a table, gives a short orgasmic chirp, and suddenly out pops Tzara from under the table with a mischievous look of satisfaction and wipes his mouth as he exits the stage. In Stoppard’s “Travesties” you never know what to expect except a challenging good time. At the American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street. Phone: 212-719-1300. Reviewed April 27, 2018.


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