Just twice in four decades of theatre have I bought the show's script during
intermission, and Tom Stoppard's Arcadia in 1995 was one of them (Shadowlands by
William Nicholson was the other). The most emotional play in Stoppard's cannon, it
offers a mystery told through two intertwining stories that touch on many topics
before its solution, including academic jockeying, the making of history, landscape
gardening, Byron, Newtonian physics and nonlinear mathematics.
Andrew William Smith (Septimus Hodge), Caitlin Duffy (Thomasina Coverly)
Photo credit: Stan Barouh
PTP/NYC's (Potomac Theatre Project) flawed, but enjoyable, revival of Arcadia captures its comedic intellectualism but not its visceral core. The play's two time frames -1809 and the present - both take place in the same country estate, Sidley Park, inhabited by two sets of characters and occasionally the same props, including a tortoise named Plautus or Lightning, depending on the century. The beginning scenes alternate the two periods until the second act where the separate sections unfold simultaneously on stage. The historical part focuses on Thomasina Coverly (Caitlin Duffy), a young aristocratic genius, and her clever and randy tutor, Septimus Hodge (Andrew William Smith), with the modern-day segment featuring two combative researchers, historical book author Hannah Jarvis (Stephanie Janssen) and Bernard Nightingale (Alex Draper), a grandstanding academic seeking scholastic fame.
Between those plot lines, Thomasina's mother, also is transforming her garden from classical to gothic; Ezra Chater (Jonathan Tindle) tries to make a name as a poet while many bed his wife ... including a never-seen but oft-spoken about Lord Byron; and a postgrad researcher, Valentine Coverly, (Jackson Prince) unearths Thomasina's surprisingly modern mathematical scribblings. Describing Arcadia's plot is as difficult as deciphering the play, which twists and turns through time and topics, with each reading and viewing bringing some new understanding. In this production, the scene between Thomasina and her tutor discussing the loss of the great library of Alexandria, for instance, resonated brightly as Septimus matter-of-factly tells his student, who mourns the disappearance of Aeschylus and Sophocles' plays:
"We shed as we pick up, like travelers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language...Mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view will have their time again."
For, ultimately, the unfairness of life's limitations insert a melancholy into Arcadia that characters face mostly with pragmatism and humor.
Stephanie Janssen (Hannah Jarvis), Alex Draper (Bernard Nightingale).
Photo credit: Stan Barouh
Cheryl Faraone's (co-artistic director) direction emphasizes this stoicism and that works well during the 20th century scenes, making the even-tempered Hannah a terrific foil for Bernard. But, in the earlier time, there is a warmth missing between Thomasina and Septimus, and it makes their relationship less intimate and engaging. While Duffy and Smith are capable, neither convey the charisma necessary to enchant. Duffy's Thomasina is also too silly as a girl and her portrayal doesn't change even as the character ages. The simple set (scenic design: Mark Evancho) with its hanging panels looks appropriate for both time periods and the video footage of Thomasina's realized formula showcases the wonder of her genius.
PTP/NYC's 31st repertory season (its 11th consecutive in NYC), runs from July 11 - August 6 in a limited Off-Broadway engagement at The Atlantic Stage 2 (330 West 16 St.). For more info visit http://PTPNYC.org