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Seth Numrich plays a founder of the antiestablishment art movement in Travesties
Initially, actor Seth Numrich wasn't sure what to make of rehearsals for Roundabout Theatre Company's Broadway revival of Travesties. During the first week, director Patrick Marber had the cast work on the musical interludes that pepper Tom Stoppard's 1974 play, which follows the fictional adventures of several real-life literary and political figures in Zurich during World War I. Numrich had expected to begin with the text, which, typical of Stoppard, is packed with clever wordplay and erudite references. Then it all began to make sense.
"I think Patrick felt that this play has to sort of ride along on this joyfulness and this playful buoyancy," Numrich says. "Having that first week to just sing and dance and play with each other worked to cultivate that. That was a nice way to jump into it."
It certainly seems to have been a successful approach. In addition to snagging four Tony nominations including Best Revival and Best Director, Travesties earned excellent reviews just as it had in London where Marber's production originated. But save for Tony nominee Tom Hollander and Peter McDonald, the rest of the eight-member cast are new to the show, including Numrich.
A Broadway regular (War Horse, Golden Boy, The Merchant of Venice with Al Pacino), Numrich plays Romanian avant-garde writer Tristan Tzara, a founder of the Dada art movement which thrived on chaos. His artistic and romantic aspirations intersect with Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin (Dan Butler), modernist writer James Joyce (McDonald) and British consul Henry Carr (Hollander), who keeps confusing the proceedings with the plot of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest.
Travesties fuses a variety of theatrical styles both silly and serious, and at times Numrich's performance is as anarchistic as his character's politics. One minute he's an angry rebel chucking props around the stage; the next he's a monocled British dandy. "I had to find a balance between the heightened English foppery of an Oscar Wilde play juxtaposed with this sort of angular, fundamental artistic vision of the Dada movement," explains Numrich, who credits movement director Polly Bennett with helping him hone his distinct physicality. "Trying to find the axis where those two things cross was really fun."
Numrich also hit the books to research Dadaism, which he knew little about. He discovered it was as much a political movement as an artistic one. "They were very clearly in direct opposition to the war," he says. "In that period in human history, you were suddenly facing bloodshed on an incomprehensible scale. Dadaists were basically saying that a world in which this kind of carnage could happen was unacceptable. Tzara really believed that a shift in artistic expression could change mankind utterly and bring about a different type of society."
Whether art should try to shape the world or just be appreciated for its own sake is one of the heady debates that drives Travesties. Numrich admits he came to rehearsals "as a convert to the Dada way of thinking," citing intriguing parallels between the play's setting and today's society. "We're almost exactly a hundred years on, so the young people in Zurich in 1917 were the millennials of their time," he says. "They were coming of age in the early part of the 20th century, so I felt very connected to that. We live in a world that's so crazy. I think we have a responsibility to respond to that as artists. I don't know exactly what that means today, but I know that Tzara had a very clear idea of what that meant and he was passionate about working towards that end. I find that incredibly inspiring."
Numrich moved to New York from Minnesota when he just was 15, becoming the youngest student ever admitted to Juilliard's drama department. While he started his career here, the last few years have seen him tread the boards in London opposite Kim Cattrall in a revival of Tennessee Williams' Sweet Bird of Youth, and film four seasons of AMC's Revolutionary War drama Turn: Washington's Spies in Virginia. So he's happy Travesties has brought him back home. "A big part of my identity is connected to this place," he says. "I feel very lucky to have gotten to finish growing up here."
Once the show ends its run in June, Numrich plans to return to Virginia to retrieve the tiny house he built and lived in while filming Turn and transport it to upstate New York. "I have some friends who have land and they've invited me to bring my house up there," he says. "It'll be my little cabin to get away from the city." Sounds like the kind of unconventional, artsy thing Tzara might have done.
Diane Snyder writes about theatre for Time Out New York and The Telegraph. Follow her at @DianeLSnyder. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Seth Numrich in Travesties. Photos by Joan Marcus.
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