Thursday, March 17, 2011


The plays of Tom Stoppard are extremely divisive. When it comes to his work, the masses tend to either collectively adore it or abhor it .
There is no middle ground.

But how, with a playwright having as diverse a canon as Tom Stoppard, can one deride his entire repetoire as "good" or "bad"?

Usually the reasoning lies with Stoppard's intellectual potency. The typical American playwright will craft a story of emotion-based conflict and situation, borrowing from their great predecessors like Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams. In Stoppardland, the emotions certainly come fast and furious, but mostly  stem from knowledgeable debate.

I like to think of a Tom Stoppard play as a turbulent Thanksgiving dinner discussion on religion and politics...only the table is surrounded by seasoned theologians and political scientists. People whose intelligence and passion are so great that their hearts and minds are of one existence. Broadway is a mighty frustrating place for Stoppard-haters. Mr. Stoppard has won the coveted Best Play Tony Award four times, with a career total of seven nominations.

One such play that received only a nomination was Arcadia, a hit in London whose 1995 Lincoln Centre production was evenly rejected and praised.

Mr. Stoppard's Arcadia is currently receiving a fiery, enlightening, and often enthralling first revival at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Broadway, and I imagine that the response will be no different. Widespread critical praise with a sprinkle of audience resentment.

Arcadia, simply stated, takes place on the large English estate of Sidley Park in both the present day and Regency eras. In the present, writer Hannah Jarvis comes to research the little-known hermit of Sidley Park, while Bernard Nightingale, a fame hunting fellow researcher butts in to prove his theory that Lord Byron had personal connections to the estate. They end up combining resources, and have many a wordy argument in the process.

Meanwhile, two hundred years earlier, we are treated to the day-to-day lives of the earlier inhabitants of Sidley Park, the very people that Jarvis and Nightingale are simultaneously researching. Although equally as intelligent and engaging, their banter hits us in a very different way. We wonder why that is, but can't quite put our finger on it...

As the play progresses, the two time periods become more and more intertwined, with scenes in both eras taking place onstage at the same time, drawing attention to our human behavioral constants.
Arcadia is a fine example of what Mr. Stoppard does best - personifying his own ideas. Hannah is very much a writer. She thinks in the mindset of history, primary sources, and art. Valentine Coverly, an ancestor of the original Sidley Park residents, is a mathematician, and wraps his head around the same thoughts through his own left-brain methodology.

In this production, directed with a loose grip by David Leveaux, I saw something in Arcadia that I had never seen before - Mr. Stoppard's love of education. Now, it may seem rather obvious that someone so smart would actively endorse education, but what I saw him doing was mourning the death of the liberal arts education.

The 1800's Sidley Park scenes are woven together by Thomasina Coverly's lessons with her eccentric tutor, Septimus Hodge. During their tutoring sessions they cover topics as broad as Latin, mathematics, politics, and even sex. And that is what catches us off guard. They speak in an informed way about a variety of subjects, effectively saying that intellectual disciplines are not mutually exclusive but rather craving thoughtful companionship.

Rigidly sticking to one discipline is what causes the majority of the disagreements for the modern day Sidley Park characters. In this lovely Arcadia, I heard Stoppard's voice, hovering above all of the actors, loudly proclaiming that society has lost the true spirit of education. Where once we grasped at all things mathematic, musical, artistic, literary, and political - we are now passively absorbing factoids as a means to a job.

Set designer Hildegard Bechtler has made the enlightened choice of leaving the walls a splotchy white, blending the two time periods visually into one, and allowing the audience to mentally color the walls to their liking.
Gregory Gale's costumes work with equal effectiveness, being true to the two time periods while never drawing too much attention to them. Donald Holder's lighting creates many marvelous moments of serenity among the prevailing chaos.

This new production is acted with the finesse and passionate focus that the play desperately crys out for. Lia Williams as Hannah Jarvis has an incredible grasp on the pacing of Stoppard's language, and shows how truly gutteral and human his characters can be when played properly. Billy Crudup, Broadway's original Septimus Hodge, returns in this revival, only this time as Bernard Nightingale. Crudup's portrayl of Nightingale exudes a certain professorial swagger that only the cockiest of collegiate academics are permitted to carry.

The sizeable company, which also includes Tony Award nominee Raúl Esparza, is uniformly fine, with the one exception being Bel Powley as Thomasina Coverly. Thomasina ages three years in the span of the play, beginning at age fourteen and ending at age seventeen. As any one knows, there is a substantial shift in maturity during that timespan, but Powley doesn't really change at all. And in the context of this play, that can be super creepy

Without a doubt, Arcadia can be a daunting play to experience. Just as in Shakespeare, you will not catch every allusion and clever quip that is presented to you. But this play, and more specifically this production, has so much beauty and an extraordinary amount of universal truth that makes the occasional frustration entirely worthwhile. For those of you who do not know Arcadia, I will not reveal even a smidge of the ending, but I can guarantee you that there is no more moving ten minutes currently on Broadway.
Et in Arcadia ego. "and in Arcadia I am," and there are few places where I would rather be.-Johnny Oleksinski

Arcadia is currently playing at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Broadway.