April 9, 2011

"Arcadia" Isn't Paradise But It's Worth a Visit

Arcadia is an amazing play. The language is, in places, sublime; the ideas totally scintillating. Many consider it to be Tom Stoppard’s masterpiece. And yet, the production now playing at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre through June 19 seems wanting. Or perhaps I just wanted too much.

I didn’t see the original American production when it played at Lincoln Center back in 1995.  Friends told me that it was a must-see and that I would be sorry if I missed it. Which I now am.  But everyone also said how intellectually demanding the show was. And, to be honest, I wasn’t sure I was up to the challenge. I still wasn’t sure about that when I heard about the revival but I was determined to see Arcadia this time.

To my relief, the play turned out to be almost totally accessible. Yes, it deals with a wide range of head-swirling subjects including Newtonian physics, Romantic poetry, 19th century landscape gardening and the epistemological nature of history.  But there’s also lots of everyone-can-get-‘em jokes and a good helping of sex talk too.

Arcadia is set in a British manor house during two different time periods. The people who populate them don’t time travel to interact with one another but they are intimately connected. Most of the characters in the contemporary present are scholars trying to piece together the lives and liaisons of those back in 1809, while those in the past try to imagine what the future will be.

The fun—and the affecting anguish—for the audience lies in observing what the characters get right and wrong. The challenge for the actors is delivering speeches chocked full of complex intellectual theories, while conveying the simple emotions that make their brainy characters as chaotically human as the rest of us.

It’s a tough task, made even more so by the fact that the cast is, by today’s standards, large. Nine characters occupy the past, five the present and only one actor plays dual roles that cause him to appear in both eras. It’s not easy to find a director who can oversee what is essentially two separate plays or to assemble a group of actors all of whom can fully realize such intricate roles.

David Leveaux originally directed the play in London two seasons ago but this production still comes off as though he didn’t have enough time to figure everything out or to get all the actors to buy into his vision. The casting seems a bit off too. 

The British actors who were in the London production fare best. Tom Riley is spot-on as the 19th century tutor Septimus Hodge and his performance appeals to the head, heart and eye.  And while many critics found Bel Powley too screechy, I think the gawkiness she brings to Hodges’ precocious charge Thomasina Coverly is just right. (Click here to read an interview with Riley and Powley.) 

The American newcomers are more problematic. Margaret Colin, a longtime favorite of mine, is too contemporary for Thomasina’s mother, the 19th century duchess Lady Croom. And Raúl Esparza, who in recent years has seemed as though he could do anything, falls short too. His character the modern-day scholar Valentine Coverly is a man who has trouble expressing his emotions but Esparza is so diffident that the lack of confidence seems more his than Valentine’s. 

Billy Crudup, on the hand, had some very strong ideas about what he wants to do.  Crudup, who made his name playing Septimus in the 1995 production, is now playing the pompous modern-day scholar Bernard Nightingale. (Click here to read an interview in which he talks about his two experiences with the play.)  Crudup makes some bold and idiosyncratic choices, not all of which work—the braying laugh he uses to punctuate Nightingale’s putdowns is clearly supposed to underscore the character’s haughtiness but just comes off as silly.

It was also hard at times to hear—and therefore understand—some of the actors,  although I suppose sound designer David Van Tieghem should bare part of the blame for that.  On the good side, Gregory Gale’s costumes are pretty to look at, as is Hildegard Bechtler’s spare but elegant set, which works well in both eras. 

Now, I have to admit that my husband K (who, alas, didn’t have a good time at all) and I didn’t see Arcadia under the best circumstances.  For some unexplained reason, the theater didn’t open its doors until about 15 minutes before curtain time, despite a sudden hail storm that had all us ticket holders huddled together under the marquee.

Later, a few minutes into the final scene of the first act, a voice came over the loudspeaker, asking the actors to leave the stage and telling those of us in the audience that the lights were going to come up because there was a medical emergency in the house.  The EMTs came in, lifted an elderly man onto a stretcher and wheeled him out. 

The whole process took less than five minutes and the actors quickly reappeared onstage and began the scene from the top.  But it was jarring.  And still is since I don’t know what happened to the poor man.  So please leave a comment or email me if you know.


Kate said...

I was there that night too. It appears that the man had a heart attack during the third scene, his wife was running back and forth between her seat and the ushers. And the EMTs actually came out when the play was still going on.

my take on the performance is here: http://www.katemulley.com/2011/03/28/arcadia-2-0/

It's also worth noting that the entire cast is new, it just happens that the actors playing Septimus and Thomasina are British, but they weren't in the West End production.

jan@broadwayandme said...

Kate, thanks for leaving your comment. Thanks,too, for pointing out the error about the British cast members, which I've now struck through. I still wish I knew if the guy who had the attack were OK though. In the meantime, I envy your having had the chance to see the West End version of this production. Hope you'll comment more in the future. Cheers, jan