‘Travesties:’ The Importance of Being Existentially Earnest

Micael Benz, Aloysisu Gigl, Julia Motyka, Carson Elrod and Richard Kind in a scene from "Travesties" at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor. Jerry Lamonica photo

Michael Benz, Aloysius Gigl, Julia Motyka, Carson Elrod and Richard Kind in a scene from “Travesties” at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor. Jerry Lamonica photo

“It’s too late for geniuses. Now we need vandals,” says Michael Benz, as Tristan Tzara, while discussing the role of artists in modern society during Act I of “Travesties,” now staging at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor.
“Your need for self expression reaches far beyond your natural gifts,” Carson Elrod, as James Joyce, says moments later.
Meanwhile, Richard Kind, as a British consul member and amateur actor by the name of Henry Carr, ramblingly reminisces of his encounters with Tzara, the founder of Dadaism; Communist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, played by Andrew Weems; and Joyce, the avant-garde writer of “Ulysses” and “Finnegans Wake;” in between pontificating on the sartorial options of his character, “the other one, not Ernest” in a community theater production of one of Oscar Wilde’s–“the Irish Gommorahist”–greatest works.
Oh yes, there are also many sly nods to “The Importance of Being Earnest,” with characters named Cecily, played by Emily Trask, and Gwendolyn, played by Julia Motyka, while Tzara’s character also assumes the identity of a young romantic named Jack, a la the double life of Wilde’s titular character. Additionally, the play’s themes are further explored, substituting the Victorian social conventions explored in “Earnest” for the early 20th Century mores and the philosophy of modern art in “Travesties.”
Sound like a lot is going on? It is. And this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg that is Tom Stoppard’s Tony Award-winning play, which also includes song-and-dance numbers, a striptease and pie fights alongside the blistering rhetoric, witty repartee and breakneck-speed/whip-smart wordplay. In short, “Travesties” is not a play for dullards.
What I find fascinating about the themes of the 1895 work by Wilde (an all-time fave of mine) and the 1974 work by Stoppard is how they still hold up today. An up-and-coming playwright of this generation needs merely to substitute the subtle themes in “Earnest” or the more absurdist diatribe-driven points in “Travesties” for the nearly sociopathic, self-indulgent navel-gazing of modern social media for an instant homage-laden update. Note to such artiste: throw in some lightly acerbic Noel Coward and it will be golden.
At Bay Street, Richard Kind shines in this tour-de-force showcase for him and his many theatrical talents. He’s Walter Mitty in a smoking jacket meets Woody Allen on histrionics-inducing steroids.
What’s also great is that the play allows for all to shine in their meaty roles, particularly Benz, Elrod and Weems but also including Motyka and Trask. And proving that there are no small roles in the theater, Aloysius Gigl is wonderful as Bennett the butler and Isabel Keating, as Nadya, who has the briefest time on stage, is simply lovely. I’m also glad to report that every seat in the house was full last night, Thursday, July 3. This solid second show for the 2014 season has me on the edge of my seat and absolutely wanting for more.

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