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Theater Review | 'Arcadia'
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By Ben Brantley
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A suspicion lingers in the heart of the constant theatergoer that if you are too clever, then you must be made of ice. This prejudice has misguidedly dogged, among others, that greatest of songwriters, Stephen Sondheim, like a peevish, affection-starved beagle. But it has never clung to anyone more tenaciously and erroneously than it does to the playwright Tom Stoppard.
So I encourage you to feel the heat rising from the stage of the Ethel Barrymore Theater, where a half-terrific revival of Mr. Stoppard’s entirely terrific “Arcadia” opened on Thursday night. Though this play finds Mr. Stoppard at his most luxuriantly wordy, it is not hot air of which I speak. Watching David Leveaux’s production I realized more than ever that “Arcadia,” a tale of two centuries in pseudopastoral England, is propelled by genuine, panting passion.
And not just physical passion. This may be a work that begins with the question, posed by a 13-year-old girl in 1809, of just what “a carnal embrace” is. But good old lust is only one complicating element within the deeper impulse that animates both the characters in “Arcadia” and the play itself.
That is the unquenchable human urge to acquire knowledge, whether carnal, mathematical, historical or metaphysical. It is the itch to discover what lurks beneath concealing clothes and clouds and dusty layers of accumulated years. Success in these quests is irrelevant, since full and true knowledge of anything is impossible. As one character says toward the play’s end, in a declaration that soars, “It’s the wanting to know that makes us matter.” Though I have seen and read “Arcadia” many times since it was first staged in London in 1993, Mr. Leveaux’s interpretation brings out the irresistible force of “wanting to know” better than any version in my experience. This is by no means a perfect production. Several central roles are slightly miscast. Worse, some of the performances from the Anglo-American cast are pitched to the point of incoherence in those nasal passages where upper-class twangs are thought to dwell.
Yet if this “Arcadia” lacks the uniform surface sparkle it had when I saw it (with a different cast) in London in 2009, it has acquired something more important: an emotional depth, viscerally rooted, to support its intellectual shimmer. This conviction comes across — with gusto and delicacy — via four performers who embody two almost-couples of two different eras.
That would be Tom Riley and Bel Powley, portraying an early-19th-century tutor and his aristocratic pupil, and Lia Williams and Billy Crudup, in the late 20th century, as literary rivals and occasional collaborators. (For the record, though I said “gusto and delicacy,” the delicate part really applies only to Mr. Riley and Ms. Williams.)
Sharing the same set — a room in the stately Derbyshire country home, Sidley Park (designed with ideal simplicity by Hildegard Bechtler) — these four actors exude a thrilling energy that flows across the centuries and reminds us that intellectual and erotic magnetism are not mutually exclusive. Their characters all clearly belong to an ages-crossing, Breugel-like march of humanity. But they are also as vividly individual as the subjects of portraits by Gainsborough or, in Mr. Crudup’s case, by a sharp social caricaturist like George Cruickshank. (The pitch-perfect costumes are by Gregory Gale.)
Quickly summing up the plot of “Arcadia” is as doomed an undertaking as solving the riddles of the universe before breakfast. When the play opens, in 1809, Sidley Park, the demesne of the worldly Lady Croom (Margaret Colin), is undergoing a relandscaping that will change its look from classical to Gothic. Subsequent alternating (and eventually overlapping) scenes take place some 180 years later, when Hannah Jarvis (Ms. Williams), a best-selling author, arrives to research a book on “the nervous breakdown of the Romantic imagination.”
Also in 20th-century Sidley is Bernard Nightingale (Mr. Crudup), a self-promoting academic looking for clues to a previously unknown chapter in the life of Lord Byron. The evidence that Bernard and Hannah gather (and misinterpret) — papers, drawings, workbooks — is mostly material we see being shaped in the 19th-century scenes, as Thomasina Coverly (Ms. Powley), Lady Croom’s daughter, pursues her studies with her tutor, Septimus Hodge (Mr. Riley).
Yes, Lord Byron is (or has been) a guest at Sidley, though we never see him. (He bears roughly the same relation to “Arcadia” that Hamlet did to Mr. Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.”) Septimus, it turns out, went to school with the poet and shares some of his panache if little of his genius.
If there is another genius in the house, it’s Thomasina, who has bold and prescient notions about the potential of calculus. Her notebook of equations, along with newly exhumed letters and a book of poetry, become a matter of rapt speculation by Hannah and Bernard and by Valentine Coverly (Raúl Esparza), Thomasina’s latter-day relative and a mathematical whiz himself.
Running through both centuries are threads of sexual interest and intrigue that embrace 18th-century characters played by David Turner, Glenn Fleshler, Byron Jennings, Edward James Hyland and Noah Robbins, and 20th-century characters, portrayed by Grace Gummer and Mr. Robbins again. (In both cases he’s a young Coverly on the edge of manhood.)
I didn’t entirely believe in the usually splendid Ms. Colin, though she does well by Lady Croom’s Lady Bracknell-like social pronouncements, or the talented Mr. Esparza, who falls back on old tricks of looking adorably petulant. Ms. Gummer is strangely wooden as an erotically frisky young aristo. And many of the cast members are guilty of swallowing their lines, which admittedly are mouthfuls. Unless an emergency diction coach is brought in, I suggest you read “Arcadia” before seeing it this time.
But see it you should, in part to experience the ingenuity and seamlessness of Mr. Stoppard’s time-traveling craftsmanship, but also to feel the empathic imagination brought to characters you may wind up realizing you never fully grasped before. For instance, I’ve never much cared for Hannah, who usually registers as a sort of brisk intellectual Girl Guide. But in a wonderfully sensitive performance, Ms. Williams (seen on Broadway in David Hare’s “Skylight”) poignantly conveys the self-reflective sadness in a life that has emphasized thought over feeling.
Mr. Crudup, who played the role of Septimus in the 1995 Broadway production, has, despite his leading-man looks, traditionally preferred (and flourished in) at least slightly grotesque parts (including the Elephant Man). And he makes a scenery-chewing meal of Bernard’s smarmy aggressiveness. (If you’ve spent any time on a college campus of late, you’ve met this Bernard.)
Ms. Powley, though not always intelligible, enchantingly captures the ardor of a brilliant young mind that finds the joke (and the poetry) in Fermat’s last theorem and the tragedy in the fire that destroyed the library at ancient Alexandria. And Mr. Riley (like Ms. Williams and Ms. Powley, from the British stage) is superb as the bright young man who is not Lord Byron (nor was he meant to be) but who recognizes — and bows before — real genius.
Although many truly witty, intellectually detailed considerations of languages and landscapes and thermodynamics are developed, they wouldn’t be much more than parlor games without the sensual, mutually appreciative energy that these performers exchange. In this “Arcadia” “wanting to know” gloriously becomes a full-blown, red-blooded appetite.
By Tom Stoppard; directed by David Leveaux; sets by Hildegard Bechtler; costumes by Gregory Gale; lighting by Donald Holder; sound by David Van Tieghem; hair by David Brian Brown; music by Corin Buckeridge; general manager, United States, 101 Productions Ltd.; general manager, Britain, Sonia Friedman Productions; production stage manager, Ira Mont; technical supervisor, Peter Fulbright; dialect consultant, Elizabeth Smith; choreography by Jodi Moccia. Presented by Sonia Friedman Productions, Roger Berlind, Stephanie P. McClelland, Scott M. Delman, Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz, Disney Theatrical Group, Robert G. Bartner, Olympus Theatricals and Douglas G. Smith, in association with Janine Safer Whitney. At the Ethel Barrymore Theater, 243 West 47th Street, Manhattan; (212) 239-6200; telecharge9.com. Through June 19. Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes.
WITH: Margaret Colin (Lady Croom), Billy Crudup (Bernard Nightingale), Raúl Esparza (Valentine Coverly), Glenn Fleshler (Captain Brice), Grace Gummer (Chloë Coverly), Edward James Hyland (Jellaby), Byron Jennings (Richard Noakes), Bel Powley (Thomasina Coverly), Tom Riley (Septimus Hodge), Noah Robbins (Gus Coverly/Augustus Coverly), David Turner (Ezra Chater) and Lia Williams (Hannah Jarvis).
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