nytheatre.com review by David Fuller
March 24, 2011
“The heat goes into the mix.” That is what the character Valentine, a modern mathematical chaos theoretician, says toward the end of Arcadia, which to my mind sums up playwright Tom Stoppard’s point. In this instance, Valentine is talking about the irretrievable heat that enters Newtonian physics and renders it a precious ponderment apart from the reality of thermodynamics. (Don’t worry, you do not need a scientific background to understand where Valentine is going; it is remarkably clear from what has heretofore transpired.) What Valentine has been looking at is a diagram of heat exchange that was drawn by his ancestor, Thomasina, nearly two hundred years ago. Apparently Thomasina was quite precocious, because she, a teenager, was anticipating the second law of thermodynamics by about 30 years. What Valentine is thinking about, however, is what his healthily sexed younger sister Chloe has said to him a short while ago: “It’s all because of sex...the Universe is deterministic alright, just like Newton said...but the only thing going wrong is people fancying people who aren’t supposed to be in that part of the plan.”
Yes, Arcadia is a real heat-exchanger, where passion rules in the simultaneous realities of present day and early 19th century England, both ingeniously utilizing the same set, a large room overlooking the gardens of one of England’s stately homes. (Here, the setting by Hildegard Bechtler is just right: a room that is architecturally massive yet somehow not pretentious, a place where big ideas and big passions can roam freely.) In alternating scenes Stoppard gives us the lives of passionate players each striving for her or his own Big Idea. Then at the end of the play these lives brilliantly converge in this same space, each the spectral echoing image of the other.
In the 1800s, Thomasina Coverly is the young teenage mathematics and physics genius whose passionate and insatiable quest for knowledge is tempered and somewhat sated by her tutor, Septimus Hodge, who is learned in his own right and who has a young man’s passion (he’s in his early 20s) for the women in the house. This includes Lady Croom, Thomasina’s mother, who has her own passions for her men and her garden. Septimus is also a friend of Lord Byron (who is an unseen guest in the house). In the present, Hannah Jarvis comes to the estate to research its landscape history and Bernard Nightingale converges there to investigate a mysterious chapter in the life of Byron. These two are, you guessed it, passionate about their respective projects and as they pursue the past, they ionize the present palpably.
When this heat is running full bore, this production is at its best. Some of the cast are more successful than others. Billy Crudup’s Bernard is charming and charismatic. It is a seemingly effortless performance that is completely believable and a pleasure to witness. Raul Esparza holds us rapt as well and his Valentine is quite fun, fervently following Fermat's Last Theorem with algebraic ardor. Lia Williams warms up nicely as Hannah delves deeper into her research and ultimately sparks fly between her and Crudup. Grace Gummer gives us an honest eighteen year old Chloe, intent on exploring her sexuality. However, I wish that the zeal with which Bel Powley’s Thomasina and Tom Riley’s Septimus follow their educational pursuits translated into some electricity between them. There must be a hint of a taboo romance incipient in the air at the onset of the play, and in this production there is none, otherwise it is very difficult to buy Stoppard’s ending. Perhaps this is director David Leveaux’s doing, who has staged the play seamlessly, but who may have asked Powley to be a bit too childlike for a precocious thirteen year old, whose first line is, "Septimus, what is carnal embrace?" As to the rest of the cast, though several of the supporting roles read older than I imagined the script calls for, they are marvelously played by veterans adept at Stoppard's milieu.
Among the oeuvre of the master Stoppard, Arcadia ranks as a masterpiece. It is one of those scripts that ought to be viewed anywhere, anytime. Leveaux’s version may not be perfection, but the production values are nice: Bechtler’s set is beautifully lit by Donald Holder and Gregory Gale’s costumes suit both periods well. Plus, it has some fine acting, especially Crudup. So, the passionate engine may not be running on all cylinders, but it is definitely worth seeing.