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Theatre in Review: Arcadia (Ethel Barrymore Theatre)

Grace Gummer and Billy Crudup. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

Tom Stoppard must be the most respected and least loved of modern playwrights. Consider the notices for David Leveaux's revival of Arcadia, which got the most lukewarm set of positive notices in many a season, buttressed by a solid subset of naysayers. Worse, the reviews -- both good and bad -- seriously misrepresent Arcadia on two counts. First, they leave the impression that Stoppard's script is so intimidatingly erudite that you practically need dual PhDs in physics and literary theory to grasp it. Second, many of them suggest that a fine and beautiful text has been manhandled by a motley crew of American and British actors, each acting in his or her individual style with little thought of a cohesive approach. Both charges could not be further from the truth.

Arcadia is, in fact, one of Stoppard's finest achievements, combining, in a single text, a sparkling high comedy, an absorbing literary mystery, an illuminating discussion of chaos theory and the second law of thermodynamics, and a moving meditation on the sheer impermanence of human existence. Really, people, what more do you want? Many, I suspect, would like a little less, as they find themselves exhausted by the author's ability to skip from topic to topic. But relax, sit back, and listen carefully; what emerges is an elegantly constructed theorem that reaches an emotionally potent conclusion.

The action unfolds in two time frames -- 1809 and today -- at Sidley Park, the country home of the aristocratic Coverly family. In the 19th century, the family's orderly existence is in a state of upheaval. The adolescent Thomasina Coverly is showing alarming signs of being a mathematical genius, upsetting her conventional mother, Lady Croom. Septimus Hodge, Thomasina's tutor, is caught up in a complicated sexual and literary intrigue with the Chaters, guests of the Coverlys; he slept with Mrs. Chater and subsequently panned Mr. Chater's book of poetry in a London periodical. Meanwhile, the estate's classic English greenery is being razed by Richard Noakes, a landscape architect, to make way for a mock-Gothic scheme deemed more appropriate to the age. In the eyes of several characters, however, a thing of beauty is being replaced by a vulgar display of fake ruins.

In the present, the Coverly family plays host to Hannah Jarvis, a professional historian who sees Noakes' design as the centerpiece of a proposed book about the collapse of the Enlightenment and the rise of Romanticism. Hannah is fixated on the garden's hermitage, and the identity of the person who apparently lived there for decades. Stirring things up is the appearance of Bernard Nightingale, an opportunistic scholar who is convinced that Byron stayed at Sidley Park and who proceeds to spin, out the thinnest of evidence, a bodice-ripping tale of adultery and murder that gets snapped up by the popular press. At the same time, Valentine Coverly, the eldest member of the family's younger generation and an Oxford don at ease with the finer points of physics, is constructing a mathematical experiment using the family's hunting records from 1809.

There are plenty of fireworks as Hannah and Bernard do battle over their respective methodologies but what Stoppard is really after is the limits of intellectual inquiry in all its forms Sifting through the evidence, Hannah and Bernard both make important discoveries even as they fail to grasp the full reality of what happened at Sidley Park. Byron did in fact stay there, but the true narrative is far more complicated than the blood-and-thunder melodrama Bernard cooks up. There was a hermit on the grounds, but not for the reasons Hannah thinks. Then again, Valentine's numerical experiment provides so much data he can find no meaningful pattern in it; adding to his vexation is the growing realization that his ancestor Thomasina, taking part in a crude math experiment of her own, may have discovered the second law of thermodynamics a century ahead of time, not through the accumulation of data but simply by making a stunning intellectual leap. None of the contemporary characters grasp how a family tragedy will lock these mysteries into place while leaving them obscure to modern eyes.

How much can we ever know about anything? That's the teasing question that drives Arcadia, a question that Stoppard burnishes with irony after irony. The very first lines of the play feature Septimus deliberately misleading Thomasina. Nonplussed when she asks him for a definition of the term "carnal embrace," he replies, "the practical throwing of one's arms around a side of beef." After all, Captain Brice, Thomasina's uncle, reminds Septimus, "As her tutor, you have a duty to keep her in ignorance." As it happens, Thomasina's intellectual abilities are far beyond those of any adult in her orbit. Hannah expends considerable energy insisting that Bernard's Byronic theory is a house of cards; meanwhile, her book is meant to document "the descent from thinking to feeling" as the certainties of the 18th century gave way to the torrid emotions of the Romantics. Still, even if the effort is hard and occasionally fruitless, Hannah insists, "It's wanting to know that makes us matter," and it's hard to believe that her author doesn't thoroughly agree.

Even some of the play's biggest defenders have found fault with Leveaux's direction and the overall performance of the cast. I saw this production in London a year and a half ago; I admired it, yet felt it occasionally succumbed to a certain sleepiness. (One standout was Ed Stoppard, the playwright's son, who was wry and likable as Valentine.) If anything, the Broadway production acquires a kind of fizz from the pairing off of actors from both sides of the Atlantic. Lia Williams' Hannah is the production's energy cell, her dogged pursuit of evidence and her harshly skeptical manner providing much of its comedy; she is well matched with Billy Crudup, whose transparently dishonest and oddly likable Bernard reveals a previously unseen gift for high-style comedy. Skillfully underplaying opposite them is Raúl Esparza as Valentine, whose deadpan wit deflects attention from his feverish intellectual interests. Bel Powley has been criticized in some quarters for delivering an overly mannered Thomasina, but I found her unsettlingly direct manner to be thoroughly charming. Tom Riley is both dashing and eminently well-spoken as Septimus, especially as when trying to wriggle out of trouble with the Chaters.

There are also fine contributions from David Turner as the fat-headed would-be poet Ezra Chater; Byron Jennings as the funereal Noakes; Margaret Colin as Lady Croom, whose notions of propriety are more brittle than they first appear; Grace Gummer as Chloe, the most air-headed member of the modern Coverly set; and Noah Robbins as Coverly youths of two generations. Leveaux's handling of this rangy cast becomes increasingly deft as the script calls for the two time frames to intersect on stage, climaxing in the poignant sight of two couples from different centuries waltzing on stage, unaware of what history has in store for them. (Many have complained about this production being occasionally inaudible; I didn't find it so, although I was sitting quite close to the stage, which may have made a difference.)

The action unfolds on Hildegard Bechtler's spare white set, a marvel of neoclassical order and balance; it's a visual representation of the Newtonian universe, soon to be blasted away by the harsher, more complex ideas of the 20th century. My memory may be faulty, but it seems to me that Donald Holder's lighting is more intensively detailed than the London original; in any case, the designer finds subtle grace notes that lend a sense of individuality to each scene. Gregory Gale's costumes take full advantage of the sensual aspects of the Regency style; these beautifully tailored garments contrast amusingly with the rather aggressively casual clothing of the contemporary scenes. David Van Tieghem's sound design blends a number of effects -- gunshots, birdsong, fireworks -- with reinforcement for Corin Buckridge's alluring incidental music.

In the end, Arcadia is best approached not as a compendium of facts but as a thoughtful exploration of what it means to know. At the same time, this is no mere intellectual exercise; death casts a faint, but persistent, shadow over the action, and the characters must come to grips with the knowledge that the universe is always winding down, energy is slipping away, and, eventually, time must have a stop. If you try to experience Arcadia, rather than solve it, I'm betting that you'll find it to be a thing of almost infinite beauty.--David Barbour


(28 March 2011)

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