Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 17, 2011
Arcadia by Tom Stoppard. Directed by David Leveaux. Set by Hildegard Bechtler. Costumes by Gregory Gale. Lighting by Donald Holder. Sound by David Van Tieghem. Hair by David Brian Brown. Music by Corin Buckeridge. Cast: Margaret Colin, Billy Crudup, Raúl Esparza, Glenn Fleshler, Grace Gummer, Edward James Hyland, Byron Jennings, Bel Powley, Tom Riley, Noah Robbins, David Turner, Lia Williams.
This is somewhat surprising because Leveaux, a highly variable director of revivals of both musicals (Nine, Fiddler on the Roof) and plays (The Glass Menagerie, Cyrano de Bergerac) in New York, proved so adept with Stoppard's own Jumpers back in 2004. That potentially bewildering blend of high-flying absurdity and low-lying emotions was a keen match for Leveaux's earnest but off-kilter touch. As Arcadia blends similar swirling sentiments in examining how the present and the past (in this case, 1809) inform and corrupt each other, it seemed fair to predict it would come across every bit as well.
Both plays require extravagance and expanse, merely to different degrees. Unfortunately, Leveaux has not embraced them as successfully in this Arcadia as he did in Jumpers, nor has he found ways to translate them to the subtler strokes and more condensed feelings this material requires. The writing is full of energy and excitement, but these qualities only intermittently appear in the pacing and performances.
Tom Riley brings an easy charm to Septimus Hodge, the zesty tutor who comes to the Sidley Park estate in the early 19th century to teach the young Thomasina Coverly. Septimus's interest in her gently becomes obsession, his delight at her love of learning gradually transforming into a deep appreciation of how she loves and approaches everything (including him). Riley's sleek smoothness in dealing with the girl, as Septimus alternately fails and succeeds to maintain a discreet distance from her, creates a heady flash point for the story of how Septimus and Thomasina accidentally influenced 200 years of thought and speculation.
On the other end of the timeline is Hannah Jarvis, an artist and historian whose investigation into Sidley Park's unusual landscaping embroils her in the mystery of Septimus and Thomasina. She's played with an elegant exhaustion by Lia Williams, who finds in each new discovery and defeat a reason for Hannah to continue her studies. Watching her businesslike mien melting into ecstatic relief as each new domino of uncertainty topples is one of the chief joys of this production, and Williams adroitly marshals Hannah's drive and use of acerbic humor in toppling each new obstacle she encounters.
But with the additional exceptions of Byron Jennings, displaying his usual stoic sturdiness in the role of the enterprising 1800s landscape designer whose innovative designs unwittingly propel the action, and Grace Gummer as one of Sidley Park's contemporary inhabitants, the other actors don't unlock all the necessary complexities in their characters. As the young Thomasina, Bel Powley is quite shrill, conveying a shallow smart-ass tendency rather than the combination of innocent warmth and nobly inquiring spirit the lynch-pin character requires to make rigorous sense. Margaret Colin is stately but empty as the amorous lady of the 1809 house; and David Turner's lean foppishness as Ezra Chater, an erstwhile poet whom Lord Byron may or may not have killed, is at best fleetingly funny.
Raul Esparza cuts the right figure and attitude as Valentine, the expert who becomes tangled in the questions about Thomasina's work he's trying to unwrap, but stumbles through his speeches linking his beloved science to the play's deeper questions of the heart. Billy Crudup, who originated Septimus in Trevor Nunn's landmark 1995 Lincoln Center production, has graduated to the role of Bernard Nightingale, the literary don whose hunger for a good explanation of the Lord Byron-Ezra Chater maybe-duel matters more to him than getting the story right. But his portrayal is antic and unanchored, so broad and beaming that it greatly obscures Bernard's significance as anthropomorphized truth clouding over itself.
In fairness to Crudup, sifting through this production's errata to find its reality is difficult all the way around. Leveaux makes poor use of Hildegard Bechtler's barren manor set, with staging that leaves the actors adrift and unable to fill out a too-large space with their voices and presences. (Gregory Gale's costumes and Donald Holder's lights are better at defining the confines of the mingling existences.) Worse, exchanges that should be as tightly delivered as a symphony, especially in the final scenes when today and yesteryear blur, ring more with unease than they do the lilt of verbalized melodies and counterpoints.
Stoppard's words, however, sound as gorgeous as ever, and haunt you anew with their variety and surprise. As each new movement evolves from apparently disconnected pieces, you realize that there can be no escaping the beauty and brilliance of Arcadia, any more than we can extricate ourselves from the bewitching and bemusing universe that keeps us from ever fully understanding how and why it works. Chaos may loom like a cloud over this production, but it can never completely overwhelm the effect of the challenge and the charm of this most disorderly of precisely ordered plays.