Review by Tulis McCall
(17 Mar 2010)
Tom Stoppard takes no prisoners. Whereas some people will write a play about relationships, Stoppard will write one about relationships that revolve around the law of thermo-dynamics with some quantum physics and literary historical research thrown in. It is your job as a viewer to keep up with him and his characters. No idle thoughts here. Make certain the apartment door is locked and the stove turned off. Check that you have your wallet and your cell phone. Fasten your seatbelts and prepare for lift off. Watching this spectacular production, I used brain cells that I have not used in a long, long time. When intermission arrived I was literally relieved. Thinking is work!
Arcadia is two stories connected in large part by one young woman’s devotion to science. In 1810 Thomasina Coverly (Bel Powell) was creating equations with notebook and pencil that defined laws of nature. Within minutes of the curtain rising she posits, "If you could stop every atom in its position and direction, and if your mind could comprehend all the actions thus suspended, then if you were really, really good at algebra you could write the formula for all the future; and although nobody can be so clever as to do it, the formula must exist just as if one could.” This statement, following on the heels of an inquiry regarding the definition of “carnal embrace” pretty much sums up the essence of this play. One character comments that it is all about “Sex and Literature,” but it is more like Knowledge and Sex.
While one half of the story occupies a few days in 1810, the other is set in the present, where historians and mathematicians are still reeling over what may or may not have happened in the same house two hundred years ago. Set in a “country house” – Sidley Park – the two timelines gallop apace until they literally cross paths in front of us. In the 19th century the order of the day was who is sleeping with whom, what is happening to the estate's grounds, and who is writing and being read. Lord Byron is a houseguest, although we never see him, and there is a great deal of hunting and gun wielding. There is also plenty going on in the mind of the young Lady Coverly who, with no one to tell her otherwise, assumes that she has a mind that deserves nurturing.
In the 21st Century one Bernard Nightingale (Billy Crudup) is hot on the trail of the real reason Lord Byron left England at the height of his fame. He believes the answer lies at Sidley Park. Go figure – this is the stuff art historians are made of. What seems inconsequential to 99% of us will drive them over the moon with curiosity. Nightingale, after some verbal tap dancing, enlists the aide of Hannah Jarvis (Lia Williams) who is herself a historian, but of the horticultural nature. She is working for the present Coverly family to uncover what happened when the 19th century turned its eye to a new style of landscaping based on the Italian romantic artists.
So everyone is in search of knowledge or suffering from a lack of it. It is, as Jarvis says “the wanting to know that makes us matter.” And this seems to be the very core of not only this extraordinary production, but of Stoppard's raison d’etre. Thank the better angels that his devotion is matched pound for pound by this cast. There are monologues here that would choke a horse, but so delicately are they handled, particularly by Raul Esparza who explains the mathematics of the natural world the way Julia Child might narrate a soufflé. He makes it sound simple. On the opposite end of the scale but with good reason is Crudup, whose passion for publishing and the fame that follows leaps across the footlights and clobbers you.
The entire cast is beyond first rate. Margaret Colin (Lady Croon) provides just the right touch of wit and ignorance that befits her station; Bel Powley has a grasp of her craft that belies her age; as her tutor, Septimus Hodge, Tom Riley is elegant, clever and vulnerable; Byron Jennings and Noah Robbins have little to say but very much to do with the story and its many layers; Lia Williams grows on you the more she settles in throughout the evening. Strangely they seem to be thwarted by this beautiful set. It is the only constant element that comes to mind to account for each actor's lines being lost person for person. As soon as an actor's head is turned we lose entire sentences. Time to sing out Louise….. Other than that (and it is no slight problem) so beautifully does this cast come together that great credit must be tossed to David Leveaux. One gets the feeling that he encouraged this bunch to experiment as madly as the text would allow – and that would be a lot – and the choice pays off big time.
Arcadia is positively ripping. It is delicious and brilliant. I floated out of the theatre. The next day I went directly to the bookstore to buy my copy of this play. I need to roll around in this one a few more times.
Get thee thither!
What the popular press said...
"I encourage you to feel the heat rising from the stage of the Ethel Barrymore Theater, where a half-terrific revival of Mr. Stoppard’s entirely terrific 'Arcadia' opened "
Ben Brantley for NY Times
"It's all too uncommon when a play gooses your brain as nimbly as it juices your emotions. Tom Stoppard's dazzling drama "Arcadia" does exactly that."
Joe Dziemianowicz for NY Daily News
"Feels like a loop-de-loop feeding on its own cleverness. It's easy to admire, but hard to love."
Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post
"Unbalanced by an uneven cast."
Jeremy Gerald for Bloomberg
"Unfortunately, despite several topflight turns, director David Leveaux's production is just fuzzy enough to keep us out of 'Arcadia.'"
Erik Haagensen for Back Stage
"'Arcadia' is remarkable — clever yet poetic, emotionally affecting, intellectually gripping. It's also magical. It runs almost three hours, but seems to pass in the twinkling of an eye."
Robert Feldberg for The Record
"This misjudged revival doesn’t really crack the equation."
David Cote for Time Out NY
"It’s often difficult to understand what some of the actors are saying, which hinders your full enjoyment – and perhaps even your comprehension – of the play."
Michael Sommers for Newsroom Jersey
"David Leveaux's stubbornly unaffecting production, his ensemble keeps pace with the intellectual dexterity while under-serving the material's heart."
David Rooney for The Hollywood Reporter
"Despite the mashup of Brit/Yank acting styles, helmer David Leveaux delivers a ravishing revival."
Marilyn Stasio for Variety
External links to full reviews from popular press...