Friday, March 18, 2011



Crudup, Williams, Esparza and Gummer in Arcadia (photo by Carol Rosegg)
Written by Tom Stoppard
Directed by David Leveaux
Starring Margaret Colin, Billy Crudup, Raúl Esparza, Grace Gummer, Byron Jennings, Bel Powley, Tom Riley, Noah Robbins, Lia Williams

February 25-June 19, 2011

Ethel Barrymore Theatre
243 West 47th Street

Along with The Real Thing, Arcadia may be the closest to an audience pleaser that Tom Stoppard has written. That’s not to say he’s slumming; on the contrary, the famously erudite playwright has stuffed Arcadia full of playful puns, historical and literary allusions, and discussions on topics as wide-ranging as chaos theory, landscape architecture and heat death of the universe. But the context—trying to find order in chaos, whether in the arts or sciences or romantic relationships—makes Arcadia among the least arcane of Stoppard’s works.

Of course, Stoppard adds to the alternation of playfulness and depth in the play’s structure, which juxtaposes two time frames, as events occur nearly two centuries apart in the very same room. The setting is Sidley Park, an English country estate where, in 1809, strapping young tutor Septimus Lodge instructs his precocious teenage charge Thomasina Coverly. Surrounding them are the girl’s controlling mother, Lady Croom; the mediocre poet Ezra Chater, a houseguest along with his unseen—and easily available—wife, and Mr. Noakes, the landscaper transforming the estate’s acres of gardens.

Some 200 years later, academic Hannah Jarvis—researching the estate’s history—and her sometime love, scientist Valentine Coverly, are at the house with his younger sister Chloe, both distant relatives of Thomasina. Pompous professor Bernard Nightingale arrives to dig up information on Lord Byron, who may or may not have been connected to 1809’s events. Gus, Valentine’s and Chloe’s mute younger brother, parallels Augustus, Thomasina’s troublemaking younger brother, both providing the most explicit connection between past and present, not least because the same actor (here, Noah Robbins) plays both young men..

In the playwright’s typically nimble style, Arcadia’s characters play out their intellectual and romantic pursuits, attempting to connect with one another at the same time they look for a higher purpose. In 1809, Thomasina is a forgotten teenage genius, while two centuries on, Hannah and Bernard pore over documents from the earlier time and arrive at plausible but usually erroneous conclusions about what happened.

There’s one flaw in Stoppard’s writing: although these characters are as passionate as any he has penned, their passions are more plausibly inflamed by mathematics, science, literature and landscaping than by genuine emotion. Even the lovely and affecting final image between Septimus and Thomasina lacks the heart-tugging it should have because Stoppard uses his characters as constructs more than real people.

Even the worldly Stoppardian wit, which is unleashed throughout Arcadia in a tumbling and careening display of epigrammatic dialogue, is spread out equally among the characters, which after awhile becomes slightly wearying. It’s not enough to sink the play (it’s too solid an achievement for that), but it’s enough to keep a certain distance from it, not allowing it to grab one’s heart as surely as it does one’s brain.

David Leveaux’s new staging never approaches the ecstatic heights of Trevor Nunn’s production which played Lincoln Center in 1995 but takes a respectable middle course that keeps the characters and their stories clear without dumbing down Stoppard. Hildegard Bechtler’s nicely appointed set, Gregory Gale’s exacting costumes and Donald Holder’s ingenious lighting provide a remarkably cohesive visual palette; what’s conspicuously missing is any sense of the glorious landscapes outside the house.

The cast comprises Stoppard veterans and newcomers who blend into a buoyant ensemble. Tom Riley’s dashing Septimus, Bel Powley’s whiz-kid Thomasina and Margaret Colin’s elegantly unruffled Mrs. Croom lead the 19th century contingent; Lia Williams’ brittle Hannah, Raúl Esparza’s bemused Valentine and Billy Crudup’s amusingly arrogant Bernard are their modern-day equivalents. If Crudup sometimes undercuts his character with gratuitous facial play, at least he connects with Bernard, which cannot be said for Grace Gummer’s Chloe, who should be an effervescent, not wan, young woman.

Surrounded by theaters filled with empty star vehicles, retreads and movie remakes, Arcadia would stand out even if it wasn’t stuffed to its dazzling gills with Stoppard’s unstoppable intelligence, wit and imagination.

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