This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.
Tom Stoppard is one of the few undisputed Theatrical geniuses of our age—and one of the few writers for whom a major Hollywood success is a mere boutonniere in his lapel and not cause for a change in wardrobe. Since his Oscar for rewriting the film Shakespeare in Love, Stoppard has kept busy writing for the theater, as anyone who traveled to New York or London to see his epic Coast of Utopia trilogy can attest.
This 10-hour theater event was the unexpected hit of the Broadway season, and representative of his latest dramatic phase. Unfortunately, Los Angeles has not seen any of Stoppard’s post-Shakespeare in Love work. Rock and Roll (seen last season in London) and the three Utopia plays are forgivable given their scope and recent vintage; but it’s rather obscene that no local theater has revived either Indian Ink or The Invention of Love.
Into this void comes a new production of Stoppard’s 33 year-old comedy, Travesties. Seeing the work today, Travesties seems a bridge from Stoppard's early days—manic, intensely clever exercises like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead–to the style he’s honed over the last few years: sweeping historical fictions. Travesties takes a small piece of arcane literary trivia and embellishes it. In 1917, James Joyce oversaw a production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest while living in Zurich.
Doing his research for Travesties, Stoppard stumbled across the fact that both Vladimir Lenin, the father of Soviet Communism, and Tristan Tzara, the father of the Dadaist art movement, were living in Zurich at that same time–so in they went. The resulting mélange is zesty farce about art and politics.
Hollywood’s Open Fist Theater Company is presenting this revival, and as usual with this troupe, their production is more timely than polished. Charles Otte’s staging provides the basics and the cast performs dutifully, but there is no inspiration. As opposed to Stoppard’s later, more conventional plays, his early works resist being staged. Companies can’t simply present a work like Travesties, they have to wrestle with the text and try to vanquish Stoppard’s raging invention and intellect. Open Fist isn’t quite up for that fight, and the result is an evening that is usually interesting if rarely engaging.
In between writing plays, Stoppard also finds time to translate other playwrights’ work–it was his version of Chekhov’s The Seagull that New York’s Public Theatre used for their now-legendary production in Central Park with Meryl Streep. Recently, Stoppard translated a contemporary work by the French playwright Gerald Sibleyras titled The Wind in the Poplars. Allegedly a hit in Europe, the piece in English is known as Heroes, and it is receiving its American Premiere here at the Geffen Playhouse.
Despite three accomplished comic actors, Heroes is the hoariest, lamest work the Geffen has ever staged. Perhaps in French, its septuagenarian sex jokes are tres amusant, but in English–Stoppard’s English astonishingly–they are about as funny as an old crutch.
The concept of Heroes, three aging WWI veterans killing time at a suburban Parisian hospital, is not entirely without promise. It could have been a pleasant five-minute sketch on Sid Caesar’s “Show of Shows;” but as a 90-minute piece of legitimate, contemporary theater…Heroes is a travesty.
Heroes is put out to pasture this Sunday at the Geffen Playhouse; Stoppard’s Travesties runs at Open Fist through June 23rd
This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.
image courtesy of The Open Fist Theatre Company