Arcadia: Theater Review

Carol Rosegg, 2011
The play widely considered Tom Stoppard's finest deserves a more transporting Broadway revival.

Billy Crudup stars in a wan Broadway revival of Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia."

NEW YORK -- The ideas leap off the stage in Tom Stoppard's multilayered 1993 play, but in David Leveaux's stubbornly unaffecting production, his ensemble keeps pace with the intellectual dexterity while under-serving the material's heart.

Recast with a mix of American and English actors since it played the West End in 2009, this is Leveaux's third Stoppard revival to bounce from London to Broadway, following The Real Thing in 2000 and Jumpers in 2004. So the Brit director certainly doesn't lack an affinity for contemporary theater's most erudite dramatist. But despite some persuasive performances, the overall effect is a little wan.

The play spends much time pondering mathematics and metaphysics, so it needs help from its director and actors to coax out Stoppard's underlying commentary on the human condition.

The collisions of past and present, order and chaos, art and science, romanticism and classicism all have dramatic echoes in Stoppard's text. But in order for us to feel something for the characters, the actors must suggest the passions behind all the theorizing. Only half of Leveaux's cast is up to that task.

Set in a grand country house in Derbyshire called Sidley Park, and shifting between 1809 and two centuries later in the present day, Arcadia dazzles with its ingenious structure and language. Its dialogue is scholarly and sparkling, conversational and richly epigrammatic.

At its most basic, the play is a quasi-murder mystery. Investigating a hazy chapter in the life of Lord Byron, literature professor Bernard Nightingale (Billy Crudup) stumbles on what appears to be a major discovery. He believes Byron killed minor-league poet Ezra Chater (David Turner) in a duel before abruptly leaving England.

A historical writer whose success and celebrity Bernard envies, Hannah Jarvis (Lia Williams) is also at Sidley Park to research a book. Their spiky interplay -- mixing collaboration, circumspect rivalry and mutual attraction -- is among the chief pleasures here, thanks to sharp work from both actors.

Back in 1809, however, we see the fallibility of the contemporary writers' deductions. A guest at the house, Byron remains absent from the action. Events surrounding his visit are conveyed primarily from the perspective of Thomasina Coverly (Bel Powley), a teenage math prodigy with a precocious interest in "the carnal embrace," and Septimus Hodge (Tom Riley), her skirt-chasing tutor, whose conquests include the unseen Mrs. Chater.

The two sets of characters at first alternate their scenes, then overlap and finally share the stage as their discoveries intertwine with exquisite strokes that only a writer of Stoppard's gifts could achieve. Putting some contemporary characters in period costume for a dance blurs the time frames even more.

Set designer Hildegard Bechtler's cream-colored, high-ceilinged room suggests a vast, empty canvas to be filled with knowledge, a constant thirst across the generations. But despite the elegant modulations of Donald Holder's lighting, the set's austerity has a deadening effect.

The production works best in playful moments, notably the scene that opens act two, in which Bernard rehearses his lecture on the supposed historical coup for Hannah and the Coverly heirs, Valentine (Raul Esparza), Chloe (Grace Gummer) and Gus (Noah Robbins). While pushing the character's mannered theatricality to self-satisfied extremes, Crudup never undersells Bernard's potent charms. He lays out his findings like an Oxbridge Hercule Poirot.

Riley brings depth and wily humor to Septimus (a role played by Crudup in the play's 1995 Broadway debut), who steadily realizes the originality of his young student's thinking. And Esparza brings an incisive intelligence to cynical Valentine. A scholar whose insights illuminate Thomasina's genius, he helps keep the play's talk of fractals, theorems, thermodynamics and iterated algorithms accessible.

But other cast members seem stiff, never letting us forget they are Acting. A witty woman as flirtatious as she is imperious, Thomasina's mother is one of the play's most colorful roles, but Margaret Colinappears uncomfortable. More damaging, however, is Powley's screechy Thomasina, a brat who conveys little of the romantic yearning to make her feelings for Septimus, or her ultimate fate, resonate. As her present-day counterpart, nursing a similar crush on Bernard, Gummer barely registers.

The production is not without rewards, but for a play of this complexity to land both intellectually and emotionally, it requires a seamless ensemble of actors who really listen to one another. That's too infrequently the case with this uneven cast.

Venue: Ethel Barrymore Theatre, New York (Through June 19)
Presented by Sonia Friedman Prods., Roger Berlind, Stephanie P. McClelland, Scott M. Delman, Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz, Disney Theatrical Group, Robert G. Bartner, Olympus Theatricals, Douglas Smith, in association with Janine Safer Whitney
Cast: Margaret Colin, Billy Crudup, Raul Esparza, Glen Fleshler, Grace Gummer, Edward James Hyland, Byron Jennings, Bel Powley, Tom Riley, Noah Robbins, David Turner, Lia Williams
Playwright: Tom Stoppard
Director: David Leveaux
Set designer: Hildegard Bechtler
Costume designer: Gregory Gale
Lighting designer: Donald Holder
Sound designer: David Van Tieghem
Music: Corin Buckeridge

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