[Note: This review contains potential plot spoilers. You have been warned. -CK]
Roundabout is starting its Broadway season with an all-star revival of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing. Beginning October 4, that production will shepherd the Broadway debuts of Ewan MacGregor and Maggie Gyllenhaal, and feature the talents of Cynthia Nixon (who appeared, at eighteen, in the original New York production of the play) and Josh Hamilton. By all accounts, it will be an event. But Roundabout was not content to mount only one Stoppard offering this fall. The English master’s 1995 saga Indian Ink, featuring the indomitable Rosemary Harris, is currently in previews at the company’s Off-Broadway space, The Laura Pels Theatre. Helmed by American Conservatory Theatre’s artistic director Carey Perloff and featuring a smashing performance by the British actress Romola Garai, it’s a lush and luxurious staging of one of Stoppard’s most gratifying works.
This production is billed as the play’s New York premiere, though the tiny Off-Off-Broadway theatre WalkerSpace presented it in 2003. Perloff has a history with the play—she presided over the American premiere in San Francisco in 1999. Her history and familiarity with the material most likely accounts for the seamless manner in which the action shifts from 1930s India, where the poet Flora Crewe (Garai, who possesses the delicate beauty of a young Grace Kelly) has come by invitation of the Jummapur Theosophical Society, and the English countryside of the 1980s, where Flora’s sister, Eleanor Swann (Harris), is being interviewed by an American academic (Neal Huff, terrific) collecting Flora’s letters into a monograph. Flora’s letters, and her life, come alive, while the present day interactions between academic and surviving family member fill in the details, sometimes with wild inaccuracy.
The volume of letters is published, its cover featuring a portrait of Flora painted by Nirad Das (Firdous Bamji), a painter—and minor revolutionary—with whom Flora became intimately acquainted in Jummapur. In the present-era story, Nirad’s son (Bhavesh Patel), also an artist, finds Eleanor after the book is published, and levels a surprise: his father had painted a second portrait—a nude—of her sister. Meanwhile, in India, Eldon Pike, the academic, conducts research towards a biography he hopes to write, with the assistance of Dilip (the memorable Nick Choksi), an energetic local scholar.
Harris—who’ll be performing this play on the night of her eighty-seventh birthday this coming Friday—commands the stage with an energy beginning performers would envy. She possesses that uniquely British quality of conveying imperiousness and warmth simultaneously, which is perfect for the role. Garai is already an assured stage actress (she has several West End credits, and appeared in New York as Cordelia to Sir Ian McKellen’s Lear); there is an ethereal aspect of her carriage that ideally suits the woman she plays here, a woman who has existed far longer in the memories and fantasies of those who admired and adored her than she actually lived. Bamji and Patel make a convincing pair of father-and-son artists, each exuding a seductive aura and an innate understanding of the importance of art to a culture. The play features a large cast—over fifteen named roles—and to a person, there’s no weak link.
Like much of Stoppard’s work, Indian Ink is complex and nakedly intellectual, and surely won’t be for everyone. The three older women sitting in front of me fidgeted throughout the first act and couldn’t wait to complain about how boring it was at intermission (though, of course, they didn’t leave). Personally, though, I cannot recall the last time I felt so transported. In the assured hands of a confident director and a brilliant cast, this masterpiece’s long-overdue debut is bound to be one of the season’s highlights. A word to the wise: snap up your tickets now.
[Running time: 2 hours and 55 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission. Second row mezzanine seats, through TDF.]