It's hard not to walk out of a Tom Stoppard play and not feel poorly educated. During Travesties' 2 1/2 hours, Stoppard nimbly sprints through Marxism, socialism, dadaism, nihilism, imperialism, expressionism, and cubism, then wraps it all up with a nice big bow of absurdism. If these "isms" (along with the history of the Russian Revolution) don't jibe with your knowledge base, then 90 percent of the night's rapid-fire references will fly over your head. This 1974 work places three of the most influential minds of the 20th century James Joyce, Lenin, and Tristan Tzara (dadaist founder) together in World War I-era Zurich, whereupon they commence a literate and madcap farce of a discussion about the merits of art, revolution, and politics. ACT helmer Carey Perloff's production is disorienting at the start, with tremendous bookcases flying from the sky, but soon establishes a cartoon funhouse energy that matches Stoppard's smug wit. The verbally and physically dexterous cast is assembled from top-notch performance institutions (Canada's Shaw Festival and Cirque du Soleil), and the material is a delicious workout for the mind. Even so, the production and the much-lauded script feel somewhat soulless. Stoppard is either a friggin' genius or a pretentious, elitist snob; depending on which you believe, you'll leave the theater feeling either dumbfounded or simply dumb. Nathaniel Eaton
Through Oct. 22 at the American Conservatory Theater, 405 Geary (between Mason and Taylor), S.F. Tickets are $25-80; call 749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.