Masterpiece Theater, Stoppard Style!

Barrymore Theatre, NYC
Limited Engagement

Let's cut right to the chase. The Broadway revival of Tony Award winning Tom Stoppard's masterpiece, Arcadia, is a grandly entertaining piece of brilliant theater. It is a wonderful brew, proving to be fascinating, mesmerizing, witty, intellectually rich, challenging, and, ultimately, quite moving.

Arcadia had its premiere in London in 1993, where it won both the Olivier and the Evening Standard awards for Best Play. Its first American production came in 1995 at Lincoln Center, and it starred Billy Crudup, Blair Brown, Victor Garber, and Robert Sean Leonard. That was when I first saw Arcadia, and was immediately taken with this remarkable play. 

The play was revived in London in 2009, directed by David Leveaux, and Leveux is at the helm once again for the new Broadway revival.  Describing the plot could get fairly complicated. The play takes place in a room at an English country house, during two different time periods. One set of scenes occur in the period between 1809 and 1812. They revolve around a seduction, a possible duel, and even involve the British poet Byron, although he does not appear onstage as a character in the play. The other scenes take place in the same room, but during contemporary times, where descendants of the characters depicted in the 1809 scenes still live. 

The audience watches the past events unfold, as well as the current characters, particularly two modern scholars, as they try, sometimes quite incorrectly, to piece together what actually happened 200 years ago. But, Arcadia goes far deeper than the plot would lead you to believe.

This is a play with big ideas and large scale themes; the juxtaposition of the current characters with those from the 1800s allows Stoppard to explore concepts ranging from science, mathematics, physics, academics, chaos theory, and much more. Stoppard does not ignore carnal issues either, and sex is most definitely another thematic subject.

This is a rich, dense play, and it definitely requires concentration from its audience. I would never pretend to fully grasp everything Stoppard is saying. But, it doesn’t matter -- more than enough registers to stimulate the mind and touch the heart. I also don’t want to make Arcadia sound like a college lecture put on stage -- it has interesting characters, a great deal of humor, mystery, and some plot twists that prove to be both dramatic and quite touching. Arcadia is ultimately about the human quest for knowledge, the relationship between the past and present, order and disorder, and these are themes everyone can relate to. In the final scene, the characters from the two time periods share the stage together for the first time, and it culminates in a scene that is elegant, exquisite, and beautifully poignant.  That scene exemplifies why Arcadia proves to be so theatrical and exhilarating.

Performances in this revival are strong. Billy Crudup, who played the young tutor, Septimus Hodge, in the 1995 Lincoln Center production, has graduated to the role of Bernard Nightengale, a modern day academic who can tend to be a bit arrogant, and scores in the part. Also standing out are Lia Williams, Raul Esparza, and Tom Riley, who plays the Hodge part, previously originated in New York by Crudup. All are impressive and have their moments to shine and take full advantage of them. But, Arcadia is very much an ensemble production, and the rest of the cast members also make good impressions.

Leveaux has directed with style and elegance; his production captures the humor in the piece as well as the many serious themes that Stoppard is addressing. The show grabbed me from the beginning and builds beautifully to the wonderful final images.

Arcadia is not a play to see if you're overly tired and looking for light, totally escapist fare. Any play that deals with subjects like thermodynamics, chaos vs. order, entropy, Newtonian physics, or Fermat's last theorem, requires an audience that listens closely to the Stoppard dialogue. The sound in this production isn’t amplified, and we did miss a few words here and there, although nothing that resulted in any inability to follow the onstage proceedings. There are people who are bored by the entire play.

While the characters each have their unique personalities and are very human, a case can be made that each is there to articulate a point of view or embody the themes and ideas Stoppard is presenting. None of that bothers me at all, and I find the characters to have plenty of flesh and blood, including a healthy does of libido. The contrast between the goings on in 1809 and the speculation of the modern day scholars about the events of 200 years ago is intriguing and unfolds in an intelligent and entertaining manner. As you can tell, I love Arcadia, and recommend it enthusiastically.  It is a first rate production of a ravishing Stoppard classic. - James Miller


Mr. Miller is a former Showtime exec who has spent many an evening transfixed by the bright lights of Broadway and Off-Broadway.

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