Friday, July 21, 2017


Tom Stoppard always offers scrumptious meals for the head, but not always for the heart. Arcadia, his brilliant play about literature, history, math, science, gardening, and sex, features his best-ever balance between ideas and emotion. When well done, Arcadia is sheer pleasure start to finish (although audience members have been known to daydream during the math parts). PTP/NYC's current production (running through August 6th) is indeed well done, largely thanks to Cheryl Faraone's smart, clear, well-paced, and compassionate direction.

Arcadia exists in two time frames: the early 19th century and the late 20th. Both take place in the same room in an elegant house in Sidley Park, home to the Coverlys. The earlier period focuses on Thomasina Coverly, 13 years old and a genius, and her tutor Septimus Hodge, a smart and charming man who somehow juggles making a living, writing, and a healthy sex life. This time period features affairs, theorems, brilliance, and heartbreak.

The later period focuses on Hannah Jarvis, a writer researching "the Sidley Hermit," who she describes as her "peg for the nervous breakdown of the Romantic Imagination," and Valentine Coverly, who is studying the mathematics of grouse and is sweet on Hannah. His sister Chloe Coverly is a flirt who Hannah describes as being "old enough to vote on her back," and his brother Gus, who doesn't speak, is also sweet on Hannah. Into their midst comes Bernard Nightingale, searching for information on Lord Byron, who may or may not have visited Sidley Park in the early 1800s.

This description doesn't begin to do Arcadia justice. (The only thing that can do Arcadia justice is a full production.) The show is extremely funny, with twists and turns on top of twists and turns, and more themes than one play should be able to handle.

Arcadia has so many strong points that I will just address two here. First, the people doing research in the late 20th century come to many wrong conclusions about the people in the early 19th. By showing us what actually happened, and then what the researchers think happened, Stoppard makes the important point that we cannot ever be sure about the past. He also shows us that we can't be all that sure about the present.

Megan Byrne, Andrew William Smith,
Steven Dykes, Caitlin Duffy
Photo: Stan Barouh

Second, Stoppard deeply understands the roles into which women are shoe-horned, whether or not they actually fit. Thomasina's mother, Lady Croom, rather than being thrilled at her daughter's intelligence, sees it as a practical impediment: "We must have you married before you are educated beyond eligibility." Lady Croom herself has the energy to run an army but instead spends her time harassing and/or sleeping with the people at Sidley Park. Hannah has clearly dealt with much sexism in her life. She speaks of how patronizing the reviews of her book were: "The Byron gang unzipped their flies and patronized all over it." Stoppard shows that whether it's the early 18th century or the late 20th, intelligent women are often treated as aberrations.

The set of PTP's Arcadia, designed by Mark Evancho, is attractive and spare, as it should be. The costumes, designed by Mira Veikley, are largely effective. The brief projections are a smart and wonderful addition; they demonstrate the math in action and are pretty to boot.

The cast ranges from good enough to quite good. Caitlin Duffy is too perky as Thomasina but captures her intelligence and curiosity. Andrew William Smith is not 100% right for Septimus but nicely delivers some of Stoppard's most wonderful lines. Jonathan Tindle as the cuckolded Ezra Chater is wonderful, as is Megan Byrne as Lady Croom. Stephanie Janssen nails Hannah's intelligence, yearning, and pain. Alex Draper as Bernard Nightingale is appropriately funny and annoying.

When I've seen Arcadia in the past, I've always considered the 19th century scenes to be the glory of the show, with the 20th century scenes less interesting and involving. I'm not sure if it's because I've grown to better understand the modern part or because of Faraone's careful direction, but the PTP Arcadia was the first where I found the modern scenes almost as wonderful as the ones in the 1800s.

This production of Arcadia is not without its flaws, but it is a must-see for any Stoppard fan. I had free press tickets, but I am paying to go back and see it again. That's the ultimate compliment!

Wendy Caster
(press ticket, third row)

No comments: