In “Indian Ink,” Tom Stoppard’s complex, challenging, beautifully acted and sometimes fascinating play about an Englishwoman in pre-independence India, Stoppard does something that surely not even the most intellectual of playwrights has ever achieved before on a New York stage – a living footnote.
“You mustn’t expect me to be Intelligence from Abroad,” Flora Crewe recites from the letter she is writing home to her sister about her trip in 1930. “You obviously know much more about the Salt March than I do.”
Just then Pike pops up to explain:
“Gandhi’s ‘March to Sea’ to protest the Salt Tax began at Ahmedabad on March 12th,” Pike tells us. “He reached the sea on the day this letter was written.”
This is Stoppard being theatrically playful again. Fear not, the footnotes don’t last the whole show – although there may be times you wish they did.
Eldon Pike is an English professor, hoping and planning to put together a biography of Miss Flora Crewe, the scandalous, tragic (and fictional) British poet that every schoolboy now studies. He is speaking to us a half century later, having first visited Miss Crewe’s surviving sister Eleanor Swan in England, then taken a trip to India himself to retrace Flora’s steps of 50 years earlier.
And so, the action on stage takes place on two continents a half-century apart simultaneously.
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“Indian Ink,” which has now opened at the Laura Pels, is receiving its New York premiere some 19 years after it was written, one of two Stoppard plays in the city this season, both produced by the Roundabout. “The Real Thing,” which opens on Broadway October 30th, is more accessible than this play in the Roundabout’s Off-Broadway theater. Part detective story, part love story, part history and geography lesson, “Indian Ink” is also an art lesson of sorts – there is some engrossing conversation about how Indian art differs from Western art – as well as a meditation on the nature of history and biography…how much can we be certain about the past?
All of this would surely be more easily dismissed as too obscure (and the play’s three hour length too much to take in) were it not for the presence of the delectable Romola Garai as Flora and the always-luminous Rosemary Harris as her no-nonsense sister Mrs. Swan.
Flora is the quintessential modern woman of the 1920’s, a beauty whose past precedes her, even to India, where the residents of Jummapur know or soon find out about her having modeled in the nude for Modigliani – a painting that Flora’s fiancé burned (thus becoming her ex-fiance) – as well as her having been tried in British court for obscenity for her first book of poems: “The magistrate asked me why all the poems seemed to be about sex, and I said, ‘Write what you know’ — just showing off; I was practically a virgin…” Garai establishes Flora as lively but credibly naïve as we watch while she meets with an Indian painter Nirad Das (Firdous Bamji), for whom she poses; with a British officer David Durance (Lee Aaron Rosen) with whom she goes horseback riding for the first time in her life; and with the Rajah of Jummapur(Rajeev Varma)who takes her on a tour of his vast automobile collection. What Pike wants to know – and let’s face it, the audience too – did these meetings become dalliances?
“Men were not really important to Flora. If they had been, they would have been fewer,” Flora’s sister Mrs. Swan tells Nirad Das’ son, Anish Das (Bhavesh Patel.) “She used them like batteries. When things went flat, she’d put in a new one.”
Rosemary Harris, a veteran of the New York stage going back more than 60 years, knows how to deliver a line like this, which gets one of the largest laughs in the show.
These two terrific actresses, one who will be new to most New York theatergoers, the other much beloved by us, get terrific support from the rest of the 15-member cast, and by a design team helps us understand the allure of India. Robert Wierzel’s lighting in particular is gorgeous.
Those familiar with Stoppard’s work will recognize the meticulously imagined worlds, the intellectual explorations, the theatrical ambushes, the sly chuckles; the humor as well as the insight come in this play largely from the culture clash/accommodation between India and the people who colonized it. They will also understand the fortitude this over-long play sometimes requires. But those patient enough to stay attentive may be in for another surprise; by the end, subtly, “Indian Ink” is quite moving.
Laura Pels Theater
by Tom Stoppard
Directed by Carey Perloff, scenic design by Neil Patel, costume design by Candice Donnelly, lighting design by Robert Wierzel
Firdous Bamji (Nirad Das), Bill Buell (Englishman), Nick Choksi (Dilip), Romola Garai (Flora Crewe), Rosemary Harris (Eleanor Swan), Neal Huff (Eldon Pike), Caroline Lagerfelt (Englishwoman), Omar Maskati (Nazrul), Tim McGeever (Resident), Brenda Meaney (Nell), Philip Mills (Eric Swan), Ajay Naidu (Coomaraswami),Bhavesh Patel (Anish Das), Lee Aaron Rosen (David Durnance), Rajeev Varma (Rajah/Politician)
Running time: 3 hours including a 15 minutes intermission.
Indian Ink is set to run through November 30.