Crafting high-toned and uproarious entertainment from the conflicts of the academic intelligentsia is a skill few besides Tom Stoppard can claim. His best plays, like Arcadia, seem to be constructed for the ages, even when set in very specific milieus. It’s the feeling Shakespeare gives us – that he has distilled for us certain essentials of the human condition.
Arcadia is set at Sidley Park, the large Derbyshire estate of the Coverly family, in two eras: 1809-12, in the time of the Romantic poets, and the turn of the millennium. In the latter, two dueling modern-day academics are visiting the estate: Hannah Jarvis (Stephanie Janssen), author of a popular book on Caroline Lamb, a paramour of Lord Byron, and Bernard Nightingale (Alex Draper), a don on the trail of a possible Sidley connection to Byron that would rock literary scholarship if proven.
“Meanwhile,” two hundred years before, earlier generations of Coverlys engage with their age’s scientific and philosophical revolutions. Intellectual lothario Septimus Hodge (Andrew William Smith) has no love for the Romantic poets, lamenting his age’s “decline from thinking to feeling” even as he tutors teenage Thomasina (Caitlin Duffy), a math genius who doesn’t know it. On the ground, an active plot of seduction, pistolry, and landscape design draws in Thomasina’s wise but vain mother (Megan Byrne), her blustery uncle (Steven Dykes), and especially the gullible Ezra Chater (Jonathan Tindle), a semipermanent house guest who would like to believe himself a poet for the ages.
On one important level the double-century action unfolds as a possible murder mystery, the sleuthing of which parallels the overarching theme, stated thus by Hannah, the play’s moral center: “It’s wanting to know that makes us matter.” Whether it’s Lord Byron’s whereabouts on a certain few days or the entropic fate of the universe, the search for knowledge drives us all, including Valentine Coverly (Jackson Prince), a frustrated young math enthusiast who has struck up a friendship with the brilliant but guarded Hannah. Their jokey pretend-romance reflects and comments archly on the play’s intellectual fires.
Among all these strong performances, Janssen’s portrayal of Hannah is the most impressive feat, conveying the complexities of the voluble yet repressed scholar with wondrous agility. Bursting with crackling dialogue and near-sublime wit, the script calls for just the sort of comic and emotional timing you’ll find in her performance and throughout this production from the Potomac Theatre Project, now at Atlantic Stage 2 in New York in repertory with Pity in History through August 6. A through-and-through excellent cast artfully directed by Cheryl Faraone makes the longish play fly by with scarcely a slow moment, consistently engaging our visceral spirits and our intellectual muscles alike.
A spectator without some background in the history of the arts and sciences of the early 19th century may miss some references (the program provides a handy guide to the most important of those). But anyone who appreciates the happy confluence of a great, timeless text and a company of players with a feel for history as robust as its skills will gain from seeing this masterful production. For schedule and tickets visit the Potomac Theatre Project online or call 1-866-811-4111.