David Leveaux's exquisite if ever-so-slightly muted revival of Arcadia -- Tom Stoppard's 1993 masterpiece about sex, literature, epistemology, sex, landscaping, sex, the second law of thermodynamics, and the tantalizingly unrequited romance between mind and body -- both charms and challenges its audience. And also, one senses, its cast. The production doesn't have the effortlessness or the smolder of Leveaux's 2000 remount of Stoppard's The Real Thing, but then Arcadia is a far more ambitious, far more hardworking piece of work. It requires careful excavation in very fine light, and Leaveaux furnishes both, but anyone waiting for a "Eureka!" moment will be waiting in vain.
Stoppard and Leveaux seem equally skeptical about such moments. They’re dedicated to the long view of life, love, and knowledge, and so is Arcadia. In it, suspense, sexual tension and an almost geological patience are all one: As the humans on stage scurry about with their little seductions and discoveries, the great tectonic mass of the play’s foundational intellect sits back and watches it all unfold.
And in two timelines, no less. Arcadia cross-threads the early nineteenth century with the present day, in the same English country manor. In both periods, the grounds are under construction — first from tidy Enlightenment topiary to picturesque “everything-but-vampires” Gothic, then back again, via archaeology and reclamation. And great discoveries are in the offing both then and now: In 1809, Septimus Hodge (Tom Riley) is tutoring the young heiress Thomasina Coverly (Bel Powley), and slowly, ever-so-slowly, coming to realize she’s a naive genius. (She intuits the eventual heat-death of the universe — and a rebuttal to Newton, a century ahead of its time — from her rice pudding, noting, “You cannot stir things apart.”) Meanwhile, in the present-day, Bernard Nightingale (Billy Crudup), a caddish academic, tries to team up with his preposterously buttoned-up rival, Hannah Jarvis (Lia Williams), to prove that Lord Byron killed a minor poet (David Turner) in a duel on the house grounds.
The story comes down to Byron versus science, the Enlightenment versus the Romantics, pure reason versus sheer randomness — and the possibility that the dialectic itself is nothing more than an optical illusion. If the elusive human equation refuses to balance, “it’s all because of sex,” says Chloe (the winning Grace Gummer), the present-day Coverly heiress who makes a sport of throwing herself at Bernard. “The universe is deterministic all right, just like Newton said, I mean it’s trying to be, but the only thing going wrong is people fancying people who aren’t supposed to be in that part of the plan.”
Sex hangs over Arcadia like a fine English fog, and personally, I’d have preferred it even thicker. Nothing sets off Stoppard’s crystalline intellect like a nice, rude intrusion of carnality and folly. But Leveaux has directed his cast members to turn inward, and perhaps that’s ultimately the better choice. I admit to being a little flummoxed by Crudup’s Bernard; he’s playing a character more or less alien to American audiences, the flibbertigibbet rake, and he bridges the gap with doses of downcast American irony and tics that sometimes come close to clowning. But his approach won me over by Act Two, when Bernard’s limitations as a person and a character come into fuller view. Ditto Williams’ chilly Hannah and Powley’s avid child-prodigy Thomasina — they seem immovable in their typologies until late in the play, when the clockwork clicks into place.
Quietly brilliant throughout is the restrained Raul Esparza, playing Valentine, the dilettante mathematician and Coverly scion who uncovers Thomasina’s genius using modern iterative algorithms. His subdued, never-optimized passion for Hannah burns like a steady pilot light in the play’s soul, which is a melancholy one, though pleasingly so. Seldom has a more romantic finale been more rationally, stealthily staged--the impact sneaks up on you. “This is not science,” Septimus says, erroneously, of young Thomasina’s theories. “This is storytelling.” And because it's Stoppard, it’s both, of course. The equation always balances, even — perhaps especially — when the people living it can’t.
Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia" is witty, erudite and cunningly structured. David Leveaux's revival, which opened on Broadway last night, looks handsome, and its cast, including Billy Crudup and Raúl Esparza, does fine, nuanced work.
But boy, is the show tedious.
If you've seen Stoppard's other work, most recently the trilogy "The Coast of Utopia," you know the drill: He does lots of research, then has characters mouth it back to us. Invisible footnotes dangle from every other line.
"Arcadia" takes place in the main room of the English estate of Sidley Park. With its high ceilings and marble walls, it looks like a fascist dictator's memorial -- though the real problem is that Hildegard Bechtler's set creates terrible acoustics.
While the location remains the same, the action alternates between the 19th century and the present day -- until the last scene, when characters from both eras share the stage.
The period characters, especially the precocious Thomasina Coverly (Bel Powley) and her tutor, Septimus Hodge (Tom Riley), handle most of the play's emotional load, while the contemporary inhabitants try to parse what happened in the house centuries earlier.
Stoppard makes this historical sleuthing somewhat interesting, as past and present gradually fill in the puzzle. Then again, A.S. Byatt did the same thing more successfully in her 1990 novel "Possession," three years before "Arcadia."
The show goes down easily enough. Stoppard has a way with bon mots, though he can be precious: "Do not dabble in paradox," Lady Croom (Margaret Colin, marvelously unflappable) admonishes her brother in the early 1800s. "It puts you in danger of fortuitous wit." Worse, Powley's squeaky readings make Thomasina's quips sound as if she's on "The Big Bang Theory."
Whether he's dealing with the laws of thermodynamics or Romanticism vs. Classicism, Stoppard avoids jargon and lets the audience feel pleased about itself for attending such a smart show. In its own way, this is as pandering as "Mamma Mia!"
Never mind that what's onstage feels mechanically plotted, or that you care little for these chattering people. Only Lia Williams and Billy Crudup -- as a writer and an ambitious academic, respectively -- fully suggest the passion and drive that fuel intellectual investigation.
Otherwise, "Arcadia" feels like a loop-de-loop feeding on its own cleverness. It's easy to admire, but hard to love.
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.
Despite the mashup of Brit/Yank acting styles, helmer David Leveaux delivers a ravishing revival (originating in London in 2009) of "Arcadia," Tom Stoppard's seriously playful 1993 meditation on the disintegration of Newtonian order and the joys of chaos. In a flourish of literary invention, play opens in 1809 in the library of an English country estate where a tutor is instructing his prodigiously gifted student; it then leaps forward two centuries to observe two modern-day scholars in the same room, spinning theories about the shattering events that transpired in that lovely setting on that fateful spring weekend so long ago.
Audiences needn't sweat over Newtonian physics, chaos theory, or the uses of a theodolite to appreciate Stoppard's whimsical way of humanizing science. Although the play's intricate patterns of events are illustrative of specific scientific theories, the boisterous forces of chaos that keep disrupting these classical patterns are entirely human.
Sex, for instance, is very much in the air (and in the gazebo and in my lady's chamber) at stately Sidley Park in April 1809, when we are introduced to the dashing young tutor Septimus Hodge (heartthrob material, in Brit thesp Tom Riley's exciting Broadway debut) and his precocious student, 13-year-old Thomasina Coverly (Bel Powley, disarming but awfully shrill).
Meanwhile, the intellectual challenges absorbing Thomasina, a young genius with original ideas, range from free will to Fermat's Last Theorem.
She and Septimus spread out their notebooks and research materials on a massive library desk that is the work-of-art centerpiece of Hildegard Bechtler's handsome Georgian set. That magnificent library table -- along with the books, writing implements, and lump of a turtle that SeptiThomaThomasina handled -- is still in place when the scene shifts to the present day. There's not a single jarring note to the transition. The centuries float away like passing clouds in Donald Holder's subtle lighting design, and Gregory Gale's modern-day costumes even pick up the muted palette of the period outfits.
The three scholars who now claim the room seem to be working at cross-purposes. Hannah Jarvis (Lia Williams, brimming with intellectual vitality) is doing research on the hermit who once lived at Sidley Park. Bernard Nightingale (a pompous literary poseur in Billy Crudup's delicious perf) is pursuing his theory that Lord Byron shot and killed a wronged husband in a duel fought on these grounds. And Valentine Coverly (the house skeptic, in Raul Esparza's quietly amused perf), an Oxford post-grad in biology, maintains the detached scientist's crushing disdain of both their literary houses.
Way back when, someone in the Coverly household was an unheralded genius, and the lovely mystery of the play is whether any of these modern brains has the open-minded intelligence to figure out who it was -- and why their scientific discoveries never saw the light of day.
Stoppard toys with the question, teasing us with clues and withholding the solution until the final (gorgeously staged) scenes, when characters from time past and present interact in the same room, paging the same books across the same table and at one point, literally waltzing right past one another. On this level alone, the play is an enchantment.
But Stoppard being Stoppard, there are many patterns woven into the multi-layered text, some more richly dramatized than others, but all of them, as one character puts it, "making themselves out of nothing." A subplot about landscape gardening wittily captures the tectonic cultural shift from high classicism to Byronic romanticism. The papers, notebooks and sketchpads that pass from one generation to end up in the hands of another illustrate the iterative theory in mathematics that whatever is lost will eventually be recovered. Even that long-lived tortoise serves as proof of the continuity of life.
In such a universe, "Arcadia" stands to live forever.
Enough about "Spider-Man" already—Tom Stoppard is back on Broadway! Only time will tell whether "Arcadia" is Mr. Stoppard's masterpiece, but it isn't premature to call it one of the key English-language plays of the postwar era, and even in a staging that is less than satisfactory, it makes a rich and affecting impression. Now for the bad news: David Leveaux's revival of "Arcadia," which was originally mounted in London two years ago with a different cast, isn't much better than adequate. When you're talking about a high-profile revival of a great play, good enough won't cut it.
More about that shortly, but first a few heartfelt words about "Arcadia" itself. Last seen on Broadway in 1995, it is an entrancingly clever whodunit for eggheads whose underlying purpose is to dramatize the central problem of modernity: How are we to live our lives if it turns out that they have no ultimate meaning? The play, which is set in an English country house, moves back and forth in time between 1809 and today, and the two main modern-day characters, Hannah (Lia Williams) and Bernard (Billy Crudup), are scholars who are trying to figure out what was going on in the house two centuries earlier. The answer is both astonishing and improbable: Thomasina (Bel Powley), a 13-year-old child prodigy, has figured out the Second Law of Thermodynamics all by herself, much to the bewilderment of Septimus (Tom Riley), her rakish tutor, to whom she is no less precociously attracted.
The reason why this matters is twofold. Not only does it mean that the universe is slowly and inexorably running down, but it casts a dark shadow of doubt on the optimistic certitude with which Septimus and his contemporaries (not to mention most of us today) lead their well- ordered lives. Hence the haunting exchange between the troubled teacher and his brilliant pupil that is the play's climax. "When we have found all the mysteries and lost all the meaning, we will be alone, on an empty shore," Septimus says, to which Thomasina, a preternaturally wise child who knows by instinct that love is the meaning of life, offers the only possible reply: "Then we will dance."
Those who saw Mr. Stoppard's "The Coast of Utopia" will find themselves on familiar ground in "Arcadia," which grapples with a similar set of concerns, albeit transplanted into a different context. Alexander Herzen's climactic speech in "The Coast of Utopia" would not sound out of place in "Arcadia": "History knocks at a thousand gates at every moment, and the gatekeeper is chance. It takes wit and courage to make our way while our way is making us, with no consolation to count on but art and the summer lightning of personal happiness." Such is the credo of Mr. Stoppard, a thoughtful, troubled agnostic who fears both the destructive moral consequences of radical relativism and the corrosive effects of imperfectly understood scientific discoveries on man's hopeful yet fragile soul.
"Arcadia," like "The Coast of Utopia," is—or should be—far easier to experience than it is to explain. Mr. Stoppard has embedded his philosophical interests in an ingeniously structured double-decker plot that is studded with glints of wicked wit ("Nobody would kill a man and then pan his book. I mean, not in that order"). You don't have to be a physicist, much less a philosopher, to see what Mr. Stoppard is up to, so long as "Arcadia" is staged and the lines spoken with complete clarity and correct emphasis.
This, alas, is where Mr. Leveaux and his cast go wrong. Time and again Mr. Stoppard's punch lines go astray or get thrown away, and the trouble starts as soon as the curtain goes up: Ms. Powley speaks her lines in a thickly mannered accent that might work for an English audience but serves on Broadway as a high bar to immediate comprehension. Other members of the cast are wrestling with related problems. Raúl Esparza, cast as a fey mathematician who tries to explain chaos theory to Hannah, makes the mistake of reducing his big speech to unintelligible gabble, while Mr. Crudup is too genial to be convincing as a waspishly malicious academic. Ms. Williams, who plays Hannah as a quizzical, disappointed tomboy, is both good and appealing, but hers is the only major role in "Arcadia" that is being performed with total believability.
In recent seasons I've seen two excellent regional mountings of "Arcadia," the first directed by Charles Newell for Chicago's Court Theatre in 2007 and the second directed by Aaron Posner for Washington's Folger Theatre in 2009. Both were finely cast (Holly Twyford was especially memorable as Hannah in Washington) and stylishly staged, and both had the crisp sparkle that is missing from Mr. Leveaux's production. If you've never seen "Arcadia," its absence may not be immediately apparent, but those who know the play well will likely find this earnest revival to be unpleasingly flat.