SPRING GREEN — In the best scene in American Players Theatre's production of "The Importance of Being Earnest," smug city girl Gwendolen visits her fiancée's pretty young ward, Cecily, in the country.
The two start out with niceties. But after deducing that they're both engaged to the same man, refined conversation devolves into a volley of barbs and insults lobbed over tea cake.
As performed by Cristina Panfilio and Kelsey Brennan, it's smart and tight and expertly paced, almost as if set to music.
So when it is set to music, with the same actresses playing (almost) the same characters, in Tom Stoppard's "Travesties," the results are simply fantastic.
Tom Stoppard's delirious 1974 comedy runs in the Touchstone through Oct. 3 (though most shows have sold out, it cannot be extended due to the opening of David Frank's staging of "Alcestis," in October).
Part vaudeville show, part literary jungle gym, "Travesties" defies easy explanation.
There is no plot. People repeat themselves and take off their clothes and sing patter songs about library fines and "art for art's sake."
It's like a fever dream of a very intelligent man, who is just awake enough to give us clues as to where and when we are.
The influence of "Importance of Being Earnest" on the text of "Travesties" comes through the narrator, Henry Carr, an elderly diplomat whose confused, musical memories give the show its meandering direction.
In Zurich in 1917, Carr played Algernon ("not Ernest, the other one"), in a production of Wilde's play led by James Joyce. That this occurred is historic fact, as is the presence of two other revolutionary thinkers — Tristan Tzara, founder of the European avant garde art movement called Dada, and Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin — in Zurich during the same time.
Stoppard made up the rest, drawing inspiration from old comedy routines, Joyce's use of the catechism in "Ulysses" and Lenin's own writing, among other things. Sometimes it sounds like Stoppard resurrected these men so he could ask them questions, or force them to ask questions of each other.
"What now of the Trojan War if it had been passed over by the artist's touch?" Joyce (Nate Burger) challenges Tzara (Matt Schwader). "Dust."
"Try and acquire some genius and if possible some subtlety before the season is quite over," he adds. Burger, who is having a standout season in Spring Green, plays Joyce with a sense for the serious and the ridiculous, as well as impeccable timing.
At APT, William Brown directs both "Earnest" and "Travesties," to marvelous effect.
As Stoppard's script quotes and flips Wilde's text, Brown and his designers repurpose everything else, sprinkling references through the latter play like Easter eggs.
For the set, Nathan Stuber lifts the big, red, indecipherable painting from "Earnest" Act I and turns it into doors. Matthew LeFebvre echoes his own costume design in Cecily's pink striped skirt and Carr's green velvet smoking jacket.
Marcus Truschinski plays both Algernon and Henry Carr with the same Cheshire cat grin and undisguised glee. Carr's part sounds abominably hard, with pages of monologue and repetition, but Truschinski pushes the pace fearlessly.
Schwader, an intense performer, gets to flex his comic chops here, too. As Tzara, he "writes" poetry by pulling words from a hat, accosts the other characters and tosses programs onto the stage, screaming "Dada! Dada! Dada!"
While Joyce builds his "Dublin Odyssey," Tzara prates about urinating in different colors. His "anti-art" is "completely pointless," Tzara says. "If it weren't, it wouldn't be Dada."
Only Lenin, as played by Eric Parks with dour looks and sustained gravity, seems entirely without comedy. That is, except one oft-quoted bastardization of Wilde's Lady Bracknell:
"To lose one revolution is unfortunate. To lose two would look like carelessness!"
In its written form, "Travesties," is nearly unreadable. But on the stage, it's bizarrely entertaining.
Brown has a masterful command of the play's relentless action and shifts in tone (Andrew Hansen's sound design is a key player here as well). "Travesties" is not without its darker moments, and Brown knows how to let the play breathe.
Brown writes in his director's notes that when he first saw "Travesties" on Broadway, he was "dazzled" but "had to fight hard to keep up."
"I had never seen 'The Importance of Being Earnest,'" he says. But "the ideas, the linguistic gymnastics ... the hilarious silliness of it all left me enthralled."
Audiences for Brown's excellent take on "Travesties" are likely to leave the Touchstone Theatre feeling just the same way.