Is ‘Arcadia’ Stoppard’s greatest? A new revival makes the case

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Billy Crudup, Lia Williams and Raul Esparza. ()
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Nobody ever came to see a Tom Stoppard play for the laughs, but a revival of the intellectually challenging Arcadia at the Ethel Barrymore is a reminder that the author of some of the 20th century's most cerebral plays—The Coast of Utopia, The Invention of Love—is a damn funny guy.

The first scene of Arcadia is a door-slamming farce—or would be, if the well-bred cast of characters residing at a Derbyshire country house in 1809 would do anything as uncouth as slam a door. As Septimus Hodge tries to tutor his 13-year-old student Thomasina in the finer points of algebra (this precocious child is actually schooling him, but more on that in a bit), they are constantly interrupted by servants delivering urgent missives, aristocrats bemoaning the redesign of the estate’s formal gardens, and a cuckolded husband out for revenge.

All Thomasina wants to know is the definition of “carnal embrace,” a term she overheard from the servants in relation to one female houseguest named Mrs. Chater. She doesn’t believe Septimus when he wryly explains that it’s “practice of throwing one’s arms around a side of beef,” especially when the event in question took place in the gazebo and not “a meat larder.”

It’s immediately clear to everyone, except perhaps Thomasina, that the married woman was dallying with Septimus in the gazebo, as well as in the boathouse and on the Chinese bridge. They were spotted through the spyglass of Richard Noakes, a landscape architect charged with replacing the elegant formal gardens with something in the Romantic style. (This includes demolishing the lovely terraces and topiaries and adding a hermitage and “the ruins of a castle where there never was a castle.”) A disastrously untalented poet named Ezra Chater shows up to challenge Septimus to a duel, only to be assuaged, at least for the moment, by the tutor’s empty flattery.

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The characters in this play are natural wits, and the feeling one needs to suppress one's laughter and let the great lines pass by is mostly a protection against missing the next one, since they tumble out one after another.

David Leveaux, who directed a highly regarded London production of Arcadia in 2009, doesn’t try to distract us with elaborate sets or technical wizardry. (Hildegard Bechtler’s all-white country house is really a blank canvas.) He lets Stoppard’s language, which is more than enough, carry the evening.

Stoppard isn’t interested in a simple romantic comedy, so it’s no surprise when the second scene fast-forwards to the present. We’re still in the dining room at Sidley Park, but it’s been taken over by academics rifling through documents dating from, coincidentally enough, the era when Septimus and Thomasina were busy at their lessons. Best-selling author Hannah Jarvis wants to uncover the identity of the disheveled man who lived in the hermitage about 200 years before. Bernard Nightingale, an “arrogant, greedy, and reckless” don, means to prove which two men fought a duel on the grounds at about the same time. Both have their theories, but one gets it right and one is hilariously mistaken.

Also residing in the house are the children of the current owners, including nerdy mathematician Valentine (in love with Hannah, of course) and his naïve sister Chloë (who, somewhat inexplicably, falls for the oily Bernard). It’s Valentine who really sets things in motion when he examines one of Thomasina’s notebooks. It turns out that the young girl’s doodlings were much more than that. When she explained her own algebraic theory to Septimus, asking whether she was “the first person to ever think of this,” she really was. She didn’t have enough paper to work out her complicated equation, or a computer to do in a flash what would have taken her years, but she was predicting discoveries in mathematics that would not be made for 150 years.

That’s the elegance of Stoppard’s deceptively simple tale: the people in the past think they can predict the future, while those in the present think they can unlock the secrets of the past. They are both tragically wrong. The problem, as Valentine points out, is the “noise.” These small inconsistencies in the data throw off the best calculations and destroy the most careful formulas. Chloë theorizes that when it comes to people, love is the noise. Thomasina’s mother, 200 years before, had a hypothesis of her own: it’s a flaw in the creator’s plan that we fall for the people who don’t deserve it.

“God’s plan” comes up several times, as does the question of eternal life. For Hannah and Valentine, waiting for God to reveal all the answers “at the back of the book” holds no appeal. Why, then, would anyone bother tying to solve the world’s most difficult questions? “It’s the wanting to know,” Hannah says in her most moving moment, “that makes us matter.” Valentine agrees, saying that for a scientist the “the best possible time to be alive” is the moment “when you realize that everything you thought you knew is wrong.”

The cast is almost uniformly excellent. Septimus and Thomasina are played by a pair of Brits, Tom Riley and Bel Powley. Virtually unknown on these shores, their presence here is well worth all the behind-the-scenes wrangling to secure their visas. The relationship between their characters changes immeasurably from the first scene to the last, and these two young actors make every moment between them believable. Riley has an especially difficult role, as there’s very little dialogue to convey his astonishment that his pupil just might be a genius. His sidelong glances tell us all we need to know.

Lia Williams, as Hannah, is another import. I wasn’t as convinced that she was right for the role. For Hannah to work, we must suspect that she isn’t the intellectual lightweight that Bernard accuses her of being. In the 1995 production at Lincoln Center, Blair Brown made her capable, ambitious, and unable to suffer fools for long. This Hannah often sometimes seems as blustery as Bernard.

I liked Victor Garber’s take on Bernard 16 years ago, but I was equally enamored with Billy Crudup (who played Septimus last time around). It’s a rococo role, one that could easily throw the whole production out of balance, but Crudup knows when to hold back and when to pull out the stops.

Improving on the last production is Raúl Esparza as Valentine, a role played last time by Robert Sean Leonard. He’s touching and sad and more than a little funny as he cheerfully explains that physics proves that everything in the universe is “going to end up room temperature.” He also convinces us that he knows everything about nonlinear mathematics—a feat Leonard wasn’t able to pull off.

Margaret Colin is droll as Thomasina’s mother, who can’t quite remember how old her daughter is on any given day, and Noah Robbins deftly moves back and forth between the dual roles as Thomasina’s bratty brother and Valentine and Chloë’s emotionally disturbed sibling. Edward James Hyland, David Turner, and Glenn Fleshler, and Byron Jennings are good in smaller roles.

Leveaux has assembled a first-rate production team, from Gregory Gale, who did the wry costumes, to Corin Buckeridge, whose music must span two centuries. Many people consider this to be Stoppard’s masterpiece (I say it’s a toss-up with his equally brilliant Invention of Love), and Leveaux makes a convincing case that it also one of the great plays of the 20th century.

Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia is running at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street, through June 19. Tickets are available at 212-239-6200 or at www.telecharge.com.