Behold the brilliance of Tom Stoppard! His genius is reason enough to see the Broadway revival of Arcadia at the Barrymore, a civilizing relief ably directed by David Leveaux, just as the culture at large focuses on another kind of theater: the wild ravings of Charlie Sheen. Set in the stately Derbyshire estate in two time periods, the Romantic era 1809, and a modern 1993 featuring literary scholars who mine archaic manuscripts and letters in search of evidence to support slim career-making theories, Arcadia takes a sly swipe at the academic world, and tells a much richer story celebrating the life of the mind.
"Wanting to know is what makes us matter," says Hannah Jarvis, a historical novelist researching Arcadia's legendary garden.
The play opens on a scene of privileged education. A precocious teen, one Thomasina Coverly (Bel Powley), inquires as to the nature of "carnal embrace." Her tutor Septimus Hodge, a classmate of Lord Byron, already famous as poet and rake, answers coyly and soon reveals himself to be the subject of the inquiry, a source for household gossip, having been spotted in the gazebo with the poet Ezra Chater's wife. This scandal unfolds hilariously, and by the time we cut to the present with the heirs of the stately Arcadia, we are awed by the comedy of Byron's time as Stoppard imagines it.
To start with the most famous in this ensemble, Billy Crudup's Bernard Nightingale, an over-the-top academic, is all bravado. Playing a part originated by the wiry Bill Nighy, Crudup had been Septimus in the original American premiere directed by Trevor Nunn. Tom Riley's Septimus is sweet, smart, and worthy of the amorous attentions of the female cast including his ward's mother, Lady Croom (the elegant Margaret Colin). David Turner as the wronged Ezra Chater is hilarious; the character is so fey, you can understand the transgressions of his wife. Of the modern characters, Raul Esparza is understated as Valentin Coverly, even as he sits cross-legged on the table feeding lettuce to a turtle. Lia Williams stands out as Hannah, displaying the nervous energy of a contemporary writer. Grace Gummer as Chloe outstretched on the floor illustrates the physical freedom of the 20th century, as their 19th century counterparts in vests and high bodices are constrained. Still, and to the point, waltzing at the end, the characters of each time seem perfectly attuned.
On the night I attended, Arcadia hit a current events note. Thomasina hates Cleopatra: "The Egyptian noodle made carnal embrace with the enemy who burned the great library of Alexandria." Who can think of the famed Queen without remembering Elizabeth Taylor?
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