Now playing at the Barrymore Theatre on Broadway.
I’m sure many playwrights could write a play ostensibly about music or dance or poetry that’s ultimately about love and lust. The arts lend themselves to such things. Using some sort of inherently dramatic field like politics or war or religion as a conduit wouldn’t be too difficult either. But it takes someone like Tom Stoppard to bring out the passion in mathematics and theoretical physics. Arcadia is impressive simply for that achievement.
And honestly, were it not for that unlikely alchemy, Arcadia is the kind of hyperliterate play that easily could have been impressive but not particularly loveable. The subject matter sounds so dry, the structure so highly composed, that one could be forgiven for expecting something a bit cold and airless, but Stoppard finds a way to make it just the opposite. Arcadia somehow lives up to its blissful, verdant name.
Set in the garden room of an English country estate, Arcadia jumps between 1809 and the present day. Back in the early nineteenth century, the teenage daughter of the house, precocious Thomasina Coverly (Bel Powley), studies with her tutor, Septimus Hodge (Tom Riley), a former classmate of Lord Byron who shares his friend’s tendency to get into romantic scrapes. In modern time, two writers visit the house as part of their research. Novelist Hannah Jarvis (Lia Williams) wants to use the estate’s gothic gardens as an extended metaphor in her next book, and literature professor Bernard Nightingale (Billy Crudup) hopes to uncover a secret of Byron’s early days. Both Hannah’s and Bernard’s investigations point toward Thomasina and Septimus’s time—a few fateful days in particular—and the play toys with how the scholars’ certainty in their evidence is unfounded.
The set of this production is elegantly simple (when the characters make references to the spectacular garden just out the windows, we must use our imagination), and much of the “action” takes place offstage, so Stoppard’s dialogue does the heavy lifting, carrying us through witty, provocative conversations about algebra, Latin translation, Classical versus Romantic philosophy, determinism, thermodynamics, and a host of other topics. It is, at times, a lot to take in, but it’s so spirited that it never turns into a slog. In its own way, Arcadia is as funny and suspenseful and romantic as anything I’ve seen onstage.
Much of the credit for that goes not only to Stoppard but also to the actors who bring his words to life. In my eyes, their performances vary in effectiveness, but everyone keeps up with the rhythms and energy of the language. I admit I’ve never been much of a fan of Crudup’s work; he always feels inauthentic to me, but that aura of insincerity isn’t a huge detriment to portraying the flippantly disingenuous Nightingale, and Crudup’s weirdly manic performance is at least interesting, if not always explicable. Powley makes an occasionally shrill Thomasina (I got the impression that she might be insecure about projecting to the back of the theater and overcompensating), but she ably captures the girl’s curiosity and the naïve, guileless nature of her genius. Hannah doesn’t interest me much as a character, but Williams gives her a strong, forthright manner and a wry smile.
In one of the smaller roles, Raúl Esparza plays Valentine Coverly, a frustrated modern-day mathematician who initially dismisses the brilliance contained in his forebear’s eccentric notebooks. He gets a couple of the densest monologues in the entire play—thick meditations on iteration and entropy and chaos theory that could easily be impenetrable in lesser hands—and Esparza makes them not only intelligible but poetic, imbuing them with longing and wonder.
Riley is my favorite, though. To be fair, he has one of the best parts—the thoughtful, roguish Septimus is impossible not to love—but the actor never rests contented on the superficial charms of his character. Sure, he delivers Septimus’s irresistible quips and gibes with relish—he has perhaps the best handle on Stoppard’s language of the entire cast—but as much fun as he is when he’s talking, he might be even more persuasive in his silences. Unlike many of the other characters, Septimus listens, and the subtlety with which Riley conveys the young man’s reactions to those around him is endlessly entertaining and compelling. The relationship between Septimus and Thomasina is especially delicate, and Riley finds all the right notes in wordlessly portraying the evolution of the tutor’s avuncular affection for his clever pupil to a dawning awareness and awe of her genius. Their final scene together is lovely.
Indeed, when I read the play years ago, it felt like a puzzle box—intriguing but not truly moving, especially in that bewildering final scene, in which past and present spin out concurrently. But brought to life, Arcadia finally clicked into place for me, intellectually and emotionally. The conclusion reveals not just the final answers to the mystery of the garden hermit (Hannah’s interest as she digs through the estate’s records) but the beauty and almost unbearable poignance of those answers. Without a doubt, Stoppard is presenting his audience with a masterful, challenging puzzle box, but it’s not an empty one, and that’s what makes the play so special.