Stoppard’s “Arcadia” is an engrossing, provocative intellectual argument couched in a mystery
By Lucy Komisar
Tom Stoppard’s 1993 “Arcadia” plays with truth and illusion and shows how easy it is to be deceived. It sets true intellectuals devoted to search and discovery against glory-seeking “scholars” who invent convenient truths. Stoppard, as he is good at doing, mixes truth about historical figures with fantasy about their connections with the protagonists in a way that adds to the fascination of the plot.
It is 1809 at Sidley Park, an estate in Derbyshire, England. Thomasina Coverly (Bel Powley), the precocious 13-year-old daughter of minor aristocrats, is being tutored by the sensitive, charming Septimus Hodge (an appealing Tom Riley). She is developing a complicated mathematical theory that even she doesn’t understand.
Around them swirl conflicts of ego and sex. Ezra Chater (David Turner) is a twit and a bad poet who is too dumb to know when he is being insulted. Nor does he have a clue that is wife is pursuing Septimus in assignations we learn occur at the boat house, the Chinese bridge and in the shrubbery. Septimus will acknowledge, “I regret the gazebo and the boathouse up to a point.”
Lady Croom (an appropriately aristocratic Margaret Colin), the rather cynical mistress of the house, also is having sexual adventure.
Some 180 years later, at the same estate, the main room with high windows, French doors, and a skylight is still dominated by a wooden trestle table upon which sits a turtle. Now it is the setting for a scholarly conflict between writer Hannah Jarvis (Lia Williams) and poet and critic Bernard Nightingale (Billy Crudup), who are looking for documents that could tell what happened at the earlier time. Hannah is writing about landscape and literature and the decline from thinking to feeling. She doesn’t like sentimentality. Williams is cool, cynical and strong as the modern woman.
Representing the thinking legacy of the past, a direct line from his ancestor Thomasina, is Valentine Coverly (a laid back Raul Esparza). He is a mathematician who lives on the family estate and is working on a mathematical puzzler.
But we are confronted with another puzzle relating to goings-on nearly two centuries earlier. Bernard has found a book in the library of Lord Byron that connects him to Sidley Park. It seems that Byron and Septimus were school boys together at Trinity. Bernard says he has discovered why Byron left the country. His clues are letters found in Byron’s book relating to a literary review attacking Chater. He asserts that Byron visited the estate and later killed Chater in a duel. Crudup is very good as the obnoxious academic critic, who is hyper, loud, pushy and, like Chater, pretentious, only smarter.
The duel that Stoppard really has in mind is between writers and foolish critics. This play becomes a satire of self-anointed, self-important academics who drown in the absurdity of their theoretical nonsense. The solid Hannah denounces the anti-science Bernard, “Bolix, you have left out everything that doesn’t fit,” and “If Byron killed Chater, I’m Marie of Romania.”
The truth about the past turns out as complex as any mystery novel.
Byron Jennings is excellent as the see-all, know-all 19th-century gardener, Rochard Noakes, and Grace Gummer acquits herself well as the ethereal Chloë Coverly, Valentine’s sister.
Director David Leveaux shifts repeatedly and easily between centuries and characters, with costume changes a sharp reminder that we have gone to another era. So it’s rather startling and provocative when characters and scenes suddenly mix!
Leveaux makes only a few bad choices. Bel Powley screeches so much as the young Thomasina that it’s often hard to fathom her words. Margaret Colin, otherwise fine as Lady Croom, also can’t be understood when she turns her back to the audience. Minor quibbles in a very stimulating revival.
“Arcadia.” Written by Tom Stoppard; directed by David Leveaux. Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street, New York, NY. 212-239-6200; http://www.arcadiabroadway.com/. Opened March 17, 2011; closes June 19, 2011.