She seems like a young innocent when she asks her tutor what “carnal embrace“ is, and “Arcadia” gets its first laugh when the tutor replies, protectively, “carnal embrace is the practice of throwing one’s arms around a side of beef.”
That is how “Arcadia” begins. By the time it ends,with two couples waltzing in the same room two centuries apart, we have learned, slowly, that Thomasina is something more than just a 19th century schoolgirl – she is a genius – and that “Arcadia” is more than just another one of Tom Stoppard’s clever, densely layered comedies.
Yes, the play offers wit on the level of Oscar Wilde; there are thought-provoking reflections on cosmology that might please Stephen Hawking; the whole thing is sprinkled with playful allusions to sex. But, unlike much of Stoppard’s work, “Arcadia” also — gently, indirectly — ultimately presents a touching story, both sweet and sorrowful.
So subtle are the individual filigrees that make up this work of art, it is important to get every word, which is why it makes sense to get hold of the script — and why it was a disappointment to see a long line during intermission for the infrared listening devices, a living critique of either the acoustics of the stage of the Ethel Barrymore, or the diction of some of the players, or both.
“Arcadia” takes place in a large country house in the English countryside in 1809 and in the present day. Septimus Hodge (Tom Riley), a handsome young man who was a classmate of the poet Lord Byron, tutors the 13-year-old Thomasina (Bel Powley), who is the daughter of an aristocratic family. The “carnal embrace” that Thomasina overheard the servants talking about turns out to have involved Septimus and the wife of a poet staying at the estate. The poet (David Turner) shows up to challenge Septimus to a duel.
Let us skip to the next scene, which takes place in the same room in the current day and involves two researchers, one a self-congratulating academic Bernard Nightingale (Billy Crudup) and the other a walled-off best-selling author Hannah Jarvis (Lia Williams) who for different projects are visiting the estate and trying to piece together the events of two centuries earlier – the very events that we see unfold in alternate and eventually intermingling scenes.
Did Lord Byron murder somebody in this house? Who was the mysterious insane hermit of the hermitage on the estate? There is much satisfaction in seeing how the modern historians figure it out — and get most of it wrong — and pathos when we the audience members figure out the fate of some of the characters ourselves.
Director David Leveaux has put together a cast of a dozen sure to excite at least a subset of theatergoers, including Billy Crudup, who was the dashing Septimus in the 1995 Lincoln Center production and now plays the obnoxious researcher Bernard, and Raul Esparza (best-known for “Company”), Grace Gummer (Meryl Streep’s other acting daughter) and even Noah Robbins, who got great notices for the week he played the lead of “Brighton Beach Memoirs” and here plays a teenage British aristocrat in two eras.
“Arcadia” is the kind of play that attracts would-be intellectuals, perhaps in part owing to the sophistication of its craftsmanship and its references to high-toned concepts like Newtonian physics, entropy, thermodynamics, Fermat’s theorem and chaos theory — or maybe just because the characters speak in posh English accents. A corollary of its appeal is that it encourages snob assessments: “Well, yes, the present production is acceptable, an iteration of the 2009 London revival albeit with a different cast, though not as good as the 1995 Lincoln Center production, which paled beside the initial West End run, which couldn’t hold a candle to the original 1993 production at the Royal National.”
I’ll indulge in this to say that, yes, those who have seen “Arcadia” before might have to wait until later in this run for the actors to achieve the same kind of clarity and sparkle. I also think Robert Sean Leonard in the 1995 production seemed better suited than Raul Esparza for the role of Valentine — the modern-day descendant of the genius Thomasina, himself a mathematician, who uses a computer to complete the calculations she was doing in 1809 by hand. And while Billy Crudup can do no wrong in my view, it is easier to picture the genial actor as rakish but caring Septimus than rude, self-centered Bernard.
An important note of reassurance: One need not brush up on high school algebra, much less study the second law of thermodynamics, to follow the concepts in “Arcadia”; those that need explaining are explained clearly, including a terrific scientific argument for the importance of love, or at least sex.
The rest surely provide an extra dollop of appreciation for the philosophically or scientifically-oriented in the audience, but the erudition is not what is most important. Intellectual pursuit can be viewed as trivial in a world inevitably heading towards catastrophe, which is what scientists have been discovering, and what “Arcadia” discusses. But, as one of Tom Stoppard’s characters concludes, “It’s wanting to know that makes us matter.”
Arcadia At the Ethel Barrymore Theater By Tom Stoppard Directed by David Leveaux; sets by Hildegard Bechtler; costumes by Gregory Gale; lighting by Donald Holder; sound by David Van Tieghem; hair by David Brian Brown; music by Corin Buckeridge Cast: Margaret Colin (Lady Croom), Billy Crudup (Bernard Nightingale), Raúl Esparza (Valentine Coverly), Glenn Fleshler (Captain Brice), Grace Gummer (Chloë Coverly), Edward James Hyland (Jellaby), Byron Jennings (Richard Noakes), Bel Powley (Thomasina Coverly), Tom Riley (Septimus Hodge), Noah Robbins (Gus Coverly/Augustus Coverly), David Turner (Ezra Chater) and Lia Williams (Hannah Jarvis). Running time: Two hours, 45 minutes, with one 15 minute intermission Ticket prices: $71.50 to $121.50. Student rush: $32.50. General rush: $36.50. Premium seats as high as $226.50. “Arcadia” is scheduled to run through June 19, 2011.