It’s the end of the world as we know it

In today’s Wall Street Journal drama column, the second of two reports from Wisconsin’s American Players Theatre, I review Tom Stoppard’s Travesties and David Mamet’s American Buffalo. Here’s an excerpt.

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American Players Theatre made its name by performing Shakespeare and Shaw in a rural open-air hilltop amphitheatre. It still does the classics there, but in 2009 the company opened a handsome new indoor house, the 200-seat Touchstone Theatre, with the intention of gradually widening its traditional repertory to include challenging modern plays less well suited to large-scale outdoor performance in the 1,148-seat Up-the-Hill Theatre. Five years later, APT is now making the shrewdest possible use of its new space by performing Tom Stoppard’s “Travesties” there. “Travesties” is that paradox of paradoxes, a genuinely difficult comedy that can also be a crowd-pleasing hit when staged with flair. William Brown has given it the deluxe treatment…

APT4Written in 1974, “Travesties” is a dizzyingly virtuosic variation on Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” in which Mr. Stoppard’s characters, who include Lenin (Eric Parks), James Joyce (Nate Burger) and Tristan Tzara (Matt Schwader), the inventor of Dada, are scrambled together in the senility-crazed memory of Henry Carr (Marcus Truschinski), an aged British diplomat who knew them all in Zurich in 1917. Occasionally sophomoric but more often ingenious beyond belief, “Travesties” is a fact-based fractured fairy tale full of Wilde-worthy epigrams with a modern edge…

To be sure, “Travesties” can be intimidatingly eggheady unless it’s done with unflagging comic flair, and it also runs the risk of bogging down in the slightly overlong second act. But Mr. Brown and his youthful cast skim gaily and effortlessly over the wordy bits, while Mr. Schwader, who plays Tzara with lunatic flamboyance, is more than good enough to recall Tim Curry, who played the same role on Broadway in 1975….

“American Buffalo,” David Mamet’s 1975 study of a trio of small-time Chicago thugs who can’t keep up with the competition, is the most perfect of his plays. Though its tungsten-hard tone and four-letter language don’t appear at first glance to have much in common with American Players Theatre’s more decorous classical repertory, it’s a classic in its own right, one of the most satisfying American shows of the postwar era. What’s more, it makes sense that a company that has done so well in the past by plays like “Richard III” should now be doing just as well by Mr. Mamet’s no less brutally honest portrait of a heartless America in which the only alternatives are “kickass or kissass.” James Ridge plays Teach, the central character, as a coked-up sleazebag who skitters around the stage like a demented Energizer Bunny….

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To read my review of Travesties, go here.

To read my review of American Buffalo, go here.

A scene from Michael Corrente’s 1996 film version of American Buffalo, with Dustin Hoffman as Teach and Dennis Franz as Donny. The screenplay is by Mamet:

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