First Nighter: London Boasts a Great "Ragtime," David Hare's "The Red Barn," Ronald Harwood's "The Dresser," Tom Stoppard's Surpassing "Travesties," Stephen Jeffreys's "The Libertine"

London--Ragtime, the musical billowed by Terrence McNally, Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens from E. L. Doctorow's 1975 novel, is the great American musical of the 20th century's end. The truly good news is that, under Thom Southerland's direction at the 263-seat Charing Cross Theatre, the brilliant theater piece is receiving nothing less than a magnificent revival.

Doctorow's intention, fully realized in his enchanting and enchanted prose, was to take a tale of how the melting pot that is America melted with difficulty. He presents a successful upper-middle-class New Rochelle family as it mingles increasingly with African-Americans fighting for equality and with immigrants (here exclusively from Europe) attempting to gain a foothold on the continent.

McNally has adapted Doctorow with understanding, and composer Flaherty and lyricist Ahrens have supplied songs of surpassing emotional beauty. (The score here is shy at least one Flaherty-Ahrens song.) Southerland and choreographer Ewan Jones have turned the smallish Charing Cross Theatre stage into a turbulent and frothy world where commoners of every stripe mingle with Booker T. Washington, Henry Ford, Emma Goldman, Evelyn Nesbit, Harry K. Thaw and Harry Houdini.

What any theatergoer needs to know, particularly in 2016, is that this Ragtime--stressing, among other things, the contributions immigrants make to the land--may be more necessary now than ever. With any luck, Southerland's brilliant reminder will be imported to the States. Let's hope so, anyway.
As his mysteries attest, Georges Simenon is cool in a French manner. David Hare decided to be cool, almost frosty, in another way by adapting the Simenon novel, Le Main (The Hand), as The Red Barn, which is set in Lakeville, Connecticut, where the revered mystery writer lived for 10 years.

Why Connecticut for a Hare play debuting at the National's, as so many Hare works have? Is it because Simenon's and Hare's take on American mores coincide? Perhaps. Hare certainly doesn't think favorably of the Simenon characters he's lifted. Nor, in Simenon's celebrated way, does he overtly think unfavorably. Like Simenon, he simply presents them for consideration. He presents Donald Dodd (Mark Strong, light year's different from last year's Eddie Carbone), as as a man who has everything. That includes wife Ingrid (Hope Davis), a woman who also appears to have everything.

In the cool telling, Hare suggests that having everything might be a form of having nothing and does so in a plot where, traveling to their remote Connecticut retreat in a severe storm, Donald and Ingrid lose guest Ray Sanders (Nigel Whitmey), Ray being a man whose everything is even more ample that Donald's. (Tim Reid designed the terrifying storm projections.) As a result, Donald and Ray's widow Mona (Elizabeth Debecki) find each other.

The development is their threesome's eventual undoing in an atmosphere directed by Robert Icke with cool deliberation on Bunny Christie's limited-palette set and costumes of black, grey and beige. (The only color here is in the title.) It isn't that Hare has composed a bad play. It's that he's written an intriguing play subtly undone by the off-putting calculation with which it's been mounted. It will be interesting to see what other directors make of the raw material here.
Ronald Harwood put himself on the map in 1980, when he transformed his theater experiences as dresser to the flamboyant Shakespearean actor Donald Wolfit and called it, appropriately enough, The Dresser--but not, noticeably, The Actor and the Dresser.

When Harwood wrote about an acting company touring the English provinces during World War II to bring the Bard to the Blitz-weary, he was already remembering time past. These many years later and in its revival at the Duke of York's, The Dresser is a piece of nostalgia.

Nevertheless, its depiction of the relationship between Sir (Ken Stott, fulfilling every demand of the role) and dresser Norman (Reese Shearsmith, whose thesping wiles are super) is rich with the never-changing give-and-take between the powerful and the less powerful attempting to assert some power in any way they can.

Harwood places one fateful night's action in Sir's dressing room and in the wings from which the audience can watch parts of that night's attraction, King Lear--the connection not being lost between Lear and his fool and Sir and the cunningly cosseting Norman. The shifting, evocative set is by Michael Taylor, as are the just-right period costumes.

Accompanying the fulminating Stott and the craftily obsequious Shearsmith under Sean Foley's clean direction, are, most prominent among others, Harriet Thorpe as Her Ladyship, who's fed up with the road and wants Sir to quit it, and Selina Cadell as Madge, who's been Sir's stage manager for years and through all that time has been hoping to be more. As the '40s adjective has it, they're both swell.
When it comes down to verbal genius and the deliciously devious, no one is the last 30 or 40 years really has anything on Tom Stoppard, for whom, like Vladimir Nabokov, English is a second language. With those elements no play of his surpasses Travesties, which is now receiving a first-class revival at the intrepid Menier Chocolate Factory. The irresistible Tom Hollander (last seen on the telly in The Night Manager) plays Henry Carr, a British consul in Zurich during 1917.

That year was quite a turning point in global history, and Stoppard seizes every opportunity to make something of it by having Carr hobnob with Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (Forbes Masson), James Joyce (Peter McDonald) and Tristan Tzara (Freddie Fox).

Whether Carr actually did rub elbows with those headline grabbers, all of whom stopped in Zurich at about the same time, isn't the point, and Stoppard, keen as he habitually is, gets around that by having the doddering, memory-challenged diplomat recall the possible incidents in flashback.

The point Stoppard presses as Lenin, Joyce and Tzara--with his Dada pronouncements--carry on is that between politics and the arts there's an habitual link: madness. The master playwright gets that message across even as he weaves in a salute to Oscar Wilde's Importance of Being Earnest by way of ministering young ladies Cecily (Clare Foster) and Gwendolen (Amy Morgan). Incidentally, these two even indulge in Stoppard's rewrite of an old Gallagher and Shean vaudeville routine.

If there's anything off-kilter in Patrick Marber's production, I missed it. What I didn't miss was noticing that the battered straw hat Carr sports in his dotage is meant to be the same snappy straw hat he donned as a dapper youth. That's just one of the clever touches Marber and creative team apply.
Stephen Jeffreys saw John Wilmot, the randy Earl of Rochester, as an intriguing emblem of Charles II's Restoration era and pegged The Libertine to him. Now Terry Johnson is showing off, and showing up, the Earl again in a revival at the Haymarket on Tim Shortall's good-looking set, enhanced by associate director Adam Lenson's projections.

Disdainful of everything he saw going wrong around him, Wilmot (Dominic West, issuing male pheromones throughout) decides he'll play the cynical game better than anyone else, does just that and thereby eventually does himself in. The last straw is the play he writes at Charles's request and for it includes such 17th-century taste-testers as a song about dildos. There's a moral here on pushing the envelope too far, and it's sharply vivified by the thoroughly adept cast in Shortall's classy costumes.