'Indian Ink': Theater Review

Joan Marcus
Firdous Bamji and Romola Garai in "Indian Ink"
Even second-tier Stoppard can be beguiling

Rosemary Harris stars as an Englishwoman journeying back into the past of her late sister, played by Romola Garai, in Tom Stoppard's 1995 drama

The New York theater community has no lack of either Anglophiles or Tom Stoppard admirers. So when one of the revered playwright's dramas takes almost 20 years to make the crossing from London in a major production, it seems natural to expect an inferior effort. Like its more intellectually rigorous immediate predecessor in the Stoppard canon, Arcadia, the 1995 play Indian Ink interweaves parallel time periods and narratives to explore the mutability of memory, and this long, meandering work is unquestionably hurt by the comparison. But director Carey Perloff's lucid staging and her accomplished cast make a persuasive case for what turns out to be an evocative, erotically charged piece of writing.

The playwright expanded Indian Ink from his 1991 radio drama In the Native State, which was inspired by his childhood years in 1940s Darjeeling. Relatively straightforward by the standards of Stoppard's work, it weighs such characteristic concerns as art and love, desire and creativity, considering "the smudge of paint on paper" that people leave behind and the ways in which personal and cultural perceptions, as well as time, can reshape that blurred image.

Stoppard examines those themes via a story that unfolds in 1930s India, its enigmas gradually explained fifty years later, both in that same subcontinent and in England. The twin settings provide a vivid context for a study in contrasts, depicting the irreconcilable differences of two cultures whose mutual infatuation has remained intact long after the Empire released its grip, granting India independence. There are echoes here of the rich history of literature, film and television that travels the cross-cultural divide of the British Raj, including A Passage to India, Heat and Dust and The Jewel in the Crown.

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Beloved stage veteran Rosemary Harris brings her customary warmth and spry intelligence to the role of Eleanor Swan, the aging sister of late English poet Flora Crewe (Romola Garai), who died during a trip to India for her health in the 1930s. The publication of Flora's erotic poetry has sparked fresh interest in this free-spirited fringe figure from the literary and arts scene, who rubbed shoulders back in her day with H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw and Modigliani.

The American editor of her collected poems, Eldon Pike (Neal Huff), is now laboring over Flora's letters, adding copious footnotes with help from prickly Eleanor. "Biography is the worst possible excuse for getting people wrong," she tells him, hoping to discourage the next logical step in his scholarly pursuit. One of Stoppard's key themes is the endless contradictory ways in which the past can be interpreted, whether by outsiders or those directly involved.

Bathed in warm lights and pretty pastel tones, designer Neil Patel's set takes its cue from Indian decorative arts, encasing the action in an enamel frame that might belong on a classic miniature. Director Perloff establishes clear lines connecting the 1980s London home of Eleanor to the fictional Indian small town of Jummapur a half-century earlier. Characters from both periods frequently occupy the stage at the same time. The action slips seamlessly in and out of Flora's Indian interlude that steamy, long-ago April, which springs to life from the intoxicating descriptions in letters to her younger sister. Those scenes are humorously punctuated by Pike's pedantic interjections and by Eleanor's acerbic correction of his misguided assumptions about the deceased poet.

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This might risk becoming starchy and academic if Garai's Flora weren’t so enchanting a cultural transplant; even tuberculosis can't extinguish the character's sensuality. While she keeps her distance from the stuffy Brits at the local club, Flora inflames the passions of a young English officer, David Durrance (Lee Aaron Rosen). However, that's the least interesting of the story's strands, played out in some clunky scenes.

The more captivating arc traces the mysteries surrounding Flora's friendship with the Indian painter, Nirad Das (Firdous Bamji, excellent). As she poses for him, her candor and flirtatiousness, as well as her fragility, nudge the young widower out of his painstaking formality in beautifully played exchanges. The trajectory that led to Das being briefly imprisoned for actions against the Raj is also revisited in the 1980s, when his son (Bhavesh Patel) calls on Eleanor while Pike continues his research in India.

In a less gifted writer's hands, this would probably be an exotic potboiler dressed up with snippets of colonial history and edifying dashes of poetry and politics. But Stoppard's construction is so elegant, his language so witty, and Perloff's handling of the intercut narratives so assured that the play remains absorbing, even as it stretches on toward the three-hour mark. Its resolutions are more prosaic than its teasing setup, particularly when Harris' wonderful Eleanor disappears for much of Act II. But Indian Ink affords the quietly affecting pleasures of an intimate story told with sensitivity and restraint.

The senior Das is his own harshest critic, acknowledging the elusiveness of rasa, the spiritual and emotional essence evoked by a work of art, in his portrait of Flora. Judged according to that aesthetic principle, Stoppard's play conjures an arresting sense of romance and melancholy. It finds poignancy in the vital connections that linger beyond death — some of them misunderstood, others intuitive — between sisters, lovers, father and son, researcher and subject, or even between conflicted cultures whose relationship has altered.

Cast: Rosemary Harris, Romola Garai, Firdous Bamji, Neal Huff, Bhavesh Patel, Bill Buell, Nick Choksi, Caroline Lagerfelt, Omar Maskati, Tim McGeever, Brenda Meaney, Philip Mills, Ajay Naidu, Lee Aaron Rosen, Rajeev Varma

Director: Carey Perloff

Playwright: Tom Stoppard

Set designer: Neil Patel

Costume designer: Candice Donnelly

Lighting designer: Robert Wierzel

Music & sound designer: Dan Moses Schreier

Presented by Roundabout Theatre Company, in association with American Conservatory Theater

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