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Theater Review (NYC): Arcadia – The Genius of the Place

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How many iterated algorithms would it take to predict that Tom Stoppard’s brilliant Arcadia would appear on Broadway at the same time as a magnificent production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest? Not many I would say, but then again, I don’t have a head for numbers, unlike the young Thomasina Coverly, math prodigy, whose story makes up one half of Stoppard’s time-traveling, geometry-touting, intellectual glory of a play with a Wildean sense of humor that helps balance the erudition that is Tom Stoppard.

This not to say that Stoppard’s Lady Croom (Margaret Colin) is a Lady Bracknell but as long as Arcadia asks us to thinking deeply about the past’s connection to the future, consider the Bracknellian potential of Lady Croom: “Mr. Chater, you are a welcome guest at Sidley Park but while you are one, The Castle of Otranto was written by whomsoever I say it was, otherwise what is the point of being a guest or having one?” The Wildean humor never trivializes the broad and complex themes of this astonishingly ambitious play; on the contrary, it underscores the vital importance of passion in the pursuit of knowledge.

It is not easy to sum up the basic plot of Arcadia, named for a region of Greece that represented a stark, pastoral beauty to classical poets. There is nothing simple about this Arcadia – either in story or its direction.

Two story lines cross and connect: one in the early 19th century concerns a young student’s extraordinary intellect and her tutor’s messy love affairs, and the other, a contemporary plot of academics trying desperately, and comically, to investigate lost literary evidence within Sidley Park, the Coverly home.

The cast is a quite heady affair with Broadway royalty in Billy Crudup (above right) as Bernard Nightingale, Byron scholar, and Raúl Esparza as Valentine Coverly, Thomasina’s contemporary successor both at Sidley Park and at mathematics. There is soon to be Broadway royalty in Grace Gummer (above left), Meryl Streep’s progeny, as Chloe Coverly. But don’t let all this get to you. You’ll need to keep your head when taking in all the ideas that Stoppard tosses at you. Characters enthusiastically, and with good humor, discuss algebraic theorems, the delusions of the Renaissance and Romanticism, and the existence of God, all in the presence of a tortoise named Lightning.

If there was one reason to visit, or revisit Arcadia, it would have to be forgen the comic braggadocio of Billy Crudup’s performance as Nightingale, searcher for a new angle (or new evidence) on the Byron persona among the estate’s historical minutiae. This production, in true Stoppard style, comes full circle for Crudup who starred in the 1995 Lincoln Center production as Septimus Hodge, Thomasina’s genius tutor. This time around, Crudup is the modern academic who unknowingly uncovers many of Hodge’s secrets. It is a great comic performance that will prove, although it is only March, to be one of the highlights of the New York theatre year.

Arcadia is a play made distinctive by characters who never appear on stage: the cuckolded Lord Croom; Mrs. Chater, the object of much 1809 desire; Lord Byron himself. Those who are on stage must make a considerable impact to come out of the shadows of action and words…lots of words. Tom Riley as Septimus Hodge is one of those impact performers. Impressively, making his Broadway debut, the charismatic Tom Riley is artistically impeccable. In fact, you could call him quite Bryonic. Crudup and Riley, separated in story by centuries, are two sides of the same coin. You couldn’t help but wonder – what was Crudup like as Septimus (I wasn’t lucky enough to see that production) and wouldn’t Riley be wonderful as Nightingale? Physically alike, the two actors realize Stoppard’s theories on the connections between past and present even more than seemingly possible.

Riley’s timing and nuance is made even more apparent in dialogue with his young charge Thomasina. In a miscasting that threatens to weigh down the whole production at times, Bel Powley seems to young and that’s saying something for a character who is 13 years old. Later when we see Thomasina on the verge of her 17th birthday, we don’t see that older teenager, making emerging love scenes puzzling and little off-putting. The Ethel Barrymore is a large theatre, and Powley tries bravely to fill the space with her character’s extraordinary élan, but the performance becomes shrill and more than a little relentless.

Margaret Colin too is little served cast as Lady Croom. The warm and agreeable actress is unrecognizable as the dowager to be, stiff and pretentious. Grace Gummer as Chloe seems to be all tousled blond hair and running legs. Indeed, the only actress that profits from David Leveaux’s direction is the dynamic Lia Williams. Hannah Jarvis, Nightingale’s academic rival and predecessor at the Coverly treasure hold. With “If Byron killed Chater, I’m Marie of Romania,” Jarvis deflates Nightingale’s research expectations and at the same time, enhances the clever debate between the two scholars that is a highlight of Arcadia: “Don’t let Bernard get to you. It’s only performance art, you know. Rhetoric, they used to teach it in ancient times, like PT. It’s not about being right, they had philosophy for that. Rhetoric was their chat show. Bernard’s indignation is a sort of aerobics for when he gets on television.”

Stoppard always has had a fascination with academe, an irony since he himself left school at age 17. Many of his plays deal with teacher/student relationships or teacher/teacher dialogue, his New York production of Rock n’ Roll as a recent example, Brian Cox (currently in The Championship Season) as a professor and Rufus Sewell as the Ph.D student. He might not have been much of a student, but Stoppard loves to instruct, and we are the willing pupils.

On opening night, the sound of bagpipes seeped into the Barrymore from the streets outside, but it wasn’t out of place. In fact, it seemed in order. Another welcome convergence in an extraordinary play: “The unpredictable and the predetermined unfold together to make everything the way it is.” It might be predictable and predetermined that there would be bagpipes on St. Patrick’s Day. And although there are problems in this particular production of Arcadia, it is also predictable and predetermined that Billy Crudup would be an extraordinary Bernard Nightingale.

Additional cast: Glenn Fleshler (Captain Brice), Edward James Hyland (Jellaby), Byron Jennings (Richard Noakes), Noah Robbins (Gus/Augustus Coverly), David Turner (Ezra Chater). Scenic Design by Hildegard Bechtler. Costumes by Gregory Gale. Photo by Carol Rosegg

Arcadia runs through June 19th

 

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About Kate Shea Kennon