Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia exemplifies the British playwright’s gift for combining intellectual inspection of the corners of science, philosophy and history with high comedy. The wit is dry, but the plays are juicy, and Arcadia, along with Travesties and The Invention of Love, is one of his best.
Arcadia flips between two eras: 1809–12, the zenith of Romanticism, at Sidley Park, the manor house where the action takes place, and roughly 2000, when the contemporary inhabitants of the manor and their visitors examine the records of the earlier era to make discoveries in their chosen fields. Along the way, mathematics, history, philosophy, feminism, literature and a mystery about Lord Byron all figure into Stoppard’s layered stories, and modern-day pedantic scholarship receives a comeuppance.
The earlier era serves as the comic bedrock. In it, Septimus Hodge (Andrew William Smith) tutors Thomasina Coverly (Caitlin Duffy), the daughter of Lady Croom (Megan Byrne), mistress of Sidley Park. Thomasina has an inquiring mind, from mathematics to the meaning of “carnal embrace,” which Septimus fends off with amusing misdirection that can get him in trouble. Aghast at his niece’s mention of the phrase, Thomasina’s uncle, Captain Brice, warns Septimus, “As her tutor, you have a duty to keep her in ignorance”—an epigram worthy of Oscar Wilde.
Although Thomasina is a handful, Lady Croom already has her hands full with the formal gardens of the estate. The hedges, topiary bushes and orderly rows of trees of the neoclassical era are to be torn up by a gardener and advocate of the new Romantic yearning for nature in the wild. Her wishes overruled by her husband, Lady Croom is to have overgrown shrubbery, “ruins where there never were any” and even a hermitage, but no hermit. The last doesn’t sit well with her ladyship: “If someone supplies a fountain, it comes with water.”
Eventually things become more complicated, as a waspish, arrogant academic, Bernard Nightingale, comes calling on the present-day occupants, Hannah Jarvis (Stephanie Janssen) and her fiancé, Valentine Coverly (Jackson Prince). Valentine is using the 19th-century records of grouse hunting to explore numbers theory, which links to Thomasina’s ideas about math. Hannah is interested in the history of the gardens and their uprooting. And hidden in the manor’s records is a reference to Lord Byron that Bernard wants to spin into academic gold.
At first a good deal of comedy comes from the suppositions of the moderns about what was happening in the 1809 era, and how much they get wrong. But gradually Stoppard turns the play into a panegyric for intellectual rigor, historical analysis and the commitment of experts to unearth the facts, as Valentine understands Thomasina’s theory, and Bernard’s discovery is refuted by new evidence. Truth wins out.
In presenting this play about classical vs. contemporary, Stoppard himself borrows from the old. Ezra Chater, a minor poet and a guest at the manor, is a classic cuckold, and Septimus himself is the one who has made him so. Both are characters from commedia dell’arte. Unfortunately, although Smith’s Septimus comes with a plummy voice, his trickster could use more gusto; subtle jokes fall flat. Commenting on a new Chater poem, Septimus tells the inquisitive Thomasina that he wants time to read it “with only the distraction of its own absurdities.” In Cheryl Faraone’s production, the dig misses a laugh, and a subsequent line about closing the stable door dies limply. Then, too, Caitlin Duffy as Thomasina, 13 when the play opens, is clearly too old for her character, and indeed, even for the 16-year-old Thomasina who closes the play.
Although there are moments when the actors’ projection falters or they face upstage and words are lost, there is nonetheless much fine work—from Alex Draper’s Bernard, a character oozing arrogance; Byrne’s Lady Croom, suspicious but susceptible to flattery; Janssen’s exasperated Hannah; Steven Dykes as the blustering captain; and particularly Jonathan Tindle’s Chater, costumed by Mira Veikley to resemble Dickens’s Uriah Heep. Tindle superbly charts Chater’s comic vacillation from cowardice to outrage.
Mark Evancho’s compact set follows Stoppard’s stage directions, and fits in everything necessary. Two urns on pedestals and panels of sky hint at the sweeping vistas of the estate, and a flagstone floor serves for both periods. The play is big, however, and could use more space for its many characters, particularly in the final scene, when the denizens of both eras occupy the same room clumsily.
But because Arcadia is such a big play, it is seldom done. Faraone’s production for PTP, even with flaws, provides an opportunity well worth seizing.
The PTP production of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia plays in repertory with Howard Barker’s Pity in History through Aug. 6. Evening performances for both plays are at 7 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. For tickets and the specific dates of either play, call OvationTix at 866-811-4111 or visit ptpnyc.org.