Few of today's playwrights understand and utilize time the way Tom Stoppard does. Such works as Arcadia and The Invention of Love find imprints of the past being made on present events, with those events in turn shedding light on what came before in the most theatrical of ways. Time, like detailed subject matter or the intricacies of the English language or subdued wit, is merely another valuable piece in Stoppard's estimable dramatic toolkit.
For those familiar with his other recent plays, Stoppard's Indian Ink, just now having its New York premiere at Walkerspace after first being performed in 1995, will seem familiar in the way it intermixes now and then. Yet this by now familiar device from one of our most complex and creative playwrights doesn't feel old, but thoroughly organic, an ideal way to attack the necessarily bifurcated subject of the tumultuous relationship between India and Britain in the twentieth century.
Much of that relationship is reflected in the central story of English poet Flora Crewe (Lethia Nall), who visits India for her health in 1930 and ends up with a significant education on the differences between the governing and the governed in many key areas. Her meetings with such figures as ambitious Indian painter Nirad Das (Sendhil Ramamurthy), English aristocrat David Durance (G.R. Johnson), and even the Rajah himself (Vikram Somaya) shed light on the histories of the two countries in art, poetry, politics, technology, love, and so on.
But Flora's experiences are, more or less, footnotes to history, at least in their present form; that's where Eldon Pike (Brian J. Coffey) comes in. In the early 1980s, he's working on compiling a book of her letters and perhaps a biography of her life. His interest prompts a visit to Flora's sister, Eleanor (Helen-Jean Arthur), who gives him enough information to entice him to visit India himself and follow in Flora's decades-old footsteps in an attempt to piece together the long-unsolved mysteries of her life, death, and artistic contributions. In both time periods, the complex intermingling of the two societies are played on a global stage where time, eventually, becomes conceptually irrelevant - the more things change the more they stay the same, as the saying goes.
So slowly, as conceived and executed as few but Tom Stoppard can, the past and the present begin to merge, in a number of distinct ways; scenically (Flora and Nirad Das interacting in the same space as Eldon and his guide Dilip (Debargo Sanyal), separated by over 50 years), dramatically (Nirad Das arriving in England in the form of the artist's son Anish, played by Deep Katdare, who brings Eleanor one or two surprising gifts to further illuminate the mysterious life of her sister in India), and theatrically (Eldon's occasionally commenting to the audience on the events as they unfold in the past, as if presenting the footnotes to the book he has compiled).
For finally bringing this complex and fascinating dramatic study to New York, Alter Ego Productions deserves kudos; for executing it so brilliantly, the company earns high praise. The easiest place to start is with the cast - with the exception of Coffey, who drastically overplays his character's energy and eagerness, everyone is ideally chosen. Nall is the most obvious standout, with crisp, thoughtful delivery and the magnetism needed to carry such a heavy show, though Arthur's reservedly funny Eleanor came in a close second. Every other major player has a moment in which he or she may shine, and they're all up to the task.
They all flourish under the clear and precise direction of Ashok Sinha, who makes the most of the small theater and the 17-person cast, while keeping the story - taking place simultaneously in two countries, two time periods, and a dozen different points of view - at the forefront. He also benefits greatly from Kirche Zeile's fine costumes, Jeff McCrum's discriminatory lighting, and especially Tania Bijlani's set, which allows for a maximum of playing space with a minimum of confusion.
The production does have a few kinks it could (and probably will) work out - sound cues that tend to overwhelm the actors, a lighting mishap or two, and some uncomfortably lengthy scene changes. They're generally minor, though, and the production remains strong enough to demonstrate the importance of collaboration necessarily not only in the creation of a production like Indian Ink, but also between the cultures and differing ideas Stoppard deals with in the play.
Whether taken at face value or accepted as a metaphor for a greater statement about human political interactions, this Indian Ink is thoroughly effective, thought-provoking, and enchanting.
Alter Ego Productions