Monday, October 13, 2014

Off-Broadway Review—Tom Stoppard's "Indian Ink"

Indian Ink
Written by Tom Stoppard; directed by Carey Perloff
Performances through November 30, 2014
Laura Pels Theatre, 111 West 46th Street, New York, NY

Bjandi and Garai in Indian Ink (photo: Joan Marcus)
Tom Stoppard's 1995 drama Indian Ink, which runs along parallel story paths like his 1993 masterpiece Arcadia and his 1997 play about poet A.E. Housman, The Invention of Love, toggles between Flora Crewe, a British poetess visiting India in the 1930s, and Eleanor, Flora's now-elderly younger sister, trying to fend off an American scholar from piecing together, 50 years later, the poetess's mysterious and short life.

Flora, one of Stoppard's most elegant creations, is an attractive, vivacious, free-spirited young woman who arrives in India to find a more agreeable climate to ward off her tuberculosis (which ends up killing her): her natural curiosity and bewitching personality make her irresistible to the men whom she meets, like Indian painter Nirad Das (for whom she poses nude) and British envoy David Durnance (with whom she flirts good-naturedly). 

Flora narrates her own Indian adventures through the letters she sends home to Eleanor, whom we see half a century later giving some of them to Eldon Pike, an odious American academic writing a book about Flora who is searching for her correspondence. The letters are written in a way that allows someone like Eldon to misinterpret the events and relationships they cover: Eleanor doesn't bother correcting his misapprehensions, which parallel how the British acted while colonizing India for centuries.

Although at times it feels as if Stoppard is deliberately withholding pertinent information—unlike so many of his other plays, which practically show off their erudition, crammed to the gills as they are with cultural bric-a-brac—Indian Ink is, for the most part, a stimulating journey into Western and Eastern art and history. 

Director Carey Perloff, who knows the play intimately (she helmed its 1999 U.S. premiere in San Francisco), provides shimmering stage imagery as both stories play out near-simultaneously on a mostly empty set that's little more than a blue background. But Neil Patel's set becomes less impoverished when complemented by Robert Weirzel's expressive lighting and Candice Donnelly's snazzy period costumes.

As Eleanor, the legendary Rosemary Harris has a formidable presence, while the men in the sisters' lives—Nirad, David, Eldon and Nirad's son Anish, who talks with Eleanor about his father's relationship with her sister—are sketched decently by Firmas Bjandi, Lee Aaron Rosen, Neal Huff and Bhavesh Patel. 

Then there's Romola Garai, who gives a wonderfully realized performance that vividly embodies the manifold aspects of Flora—her intense intellect, psychological makeup, curiosity and sexuality—painting a three-dimensional portrait far richer than the pictures of her Eldon fruitlessly searches for. 

Indian Ink
Laura pels Theatre, 111 West 46th Street, New York, NY

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