You don’t have to think “Arcadia” a masterpiece, as I do, to be stupefied by “Indian Ink,” Tom Stoppard’s clunky and obvious reworking of his 1991 radio play “In the Native State.” While Peter Wood’s overdesigned production does the text no favors — virtually any subsequent staging is bound to be an improvement — the play itself is too overwritten for something so thin. It’s as if Stoppard set out to reexamine some of the themes from “Arcadia” and ended up instead settling for “Camille”: a putative tearjerker distinguished by enough high-flown name-dropping to camouflage the lowbrow instincts at its core.
The pathos seems especially canned coming after “Arcadia,” another play whose (far younger) heroine dies before her time. But whereas that work folds the fate of the teenage prodigy Thomasina into an ever-deepening study of chaos in all its manifestations, the doomed poet Flora Crewe (Felicity Kendal) in “Indian Ink” is of next to no interest beyond her unfortunate consumptive demise, even if she did brush up during her 35 years against the likes of Modigliani, Shaw, Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein, and H. G. Wells.
Were her death not telegraphed from the start, Stoppard would have no play; the character — and a miscast Kendal’s winsome playing of her — are crucially lacking in either a creative or erotic dimension, notwithstanding the fact that Flora’s principal topic seems to have been sex. (“Write what you know,” she jokes.) Kendal’s brief nude scene may make convenient British tabloid fodder, but it cannot alone convey what the script omits: the galvanic force of an artist who obsesses both her aging sister Eleanor (Margaret Tyzack), as well as the literary and academic worlds, some half-century after her death.
Stoppard being Stoppard, “Indian Ink” encompasses numerous topics before collapsing the decades, “Arcadia”-style, for an unmoving graveside finale featuring yet another cumbersome Carl Toms set. Peggy Ashcroft’s elegant reading of Eleanor on radio — her final performance — amplified the scripted echoes of “A Passage to India” and “The Jewel in the Crown” (among many others), and the stage presence of “Jewel” co-star Art Malik as a painter called Das, keen to capture Flora on canvas, does the same again. (The two get a contrived exchange about “Passage to India,” lest the would-be affinities go unannounced.)
As it happens, Stoppard is interested less in Forsterian metaphysics — there’s no equivalent of the Marabar Caves in “Indian Ink”– than in the foibles of academic sleuthing shared by “Arcadia.” Flora, it seems, has passed into literary legend, particularly in the United States. Enter Eldon Pike (Colin Stinto), the satiric embodiment of earnest American academe, who arrives at Eleanor’s west London home to prepare a collection of Flora’s letters only to get hung up on mysterious references to the “Queen’s elm.” (It is, he learns in a joke London audiences will see coming a mile away, merely a Chelsea pub.)
The play shifts between Eldon’s Anglo-Asian globetrotting in 1986 in pursuit of the Flora fact file and a climactically and politically hot April in 1930 in the Indian native state of Jammapur several months before Flora’s death. Like almost every Stoppard heroine originated by Kendal, Flora can’t help but add to the steamy weather; before long, she is being wooed both by Das, an “Englished-up” Nationalist with complex ties to the Empire he claims to reject, and the British army officer David Durance (Dominic Jephcott), whose second act polo instruction on (fake) horseback is beyond even cliche.
Radio can easily absorb such temporal shifts, but director Wood here accommodates them so clumsily — when all else fails, he brings on a Charlestoning lineup of flappers — that one wonders why “In the Native State” did not go instead to celluloid; Toms’ lumbering design repeatedly stops the play cold, with its leftover dry ice from “An Inspector Calls” and a contemporary Jammapur neonscape that recalls the Havana sequence in “Guys and Dolls” by way of a previous Kendal vehicle at this theater, “Made in Bangkok.”
Against the clutter, few actors make an impression beyond Tyzack’s commanding Eleanor, whose significant changes of heart and demeanor over time are ludicrously glossed over in her remark, “One alters.” Altering, sadly, is what Kendal does not do: A decade too old for the role, the actress is still playing pert and kittenish when what is required is something approaching the sensuality of genius. The part cries out for an Emma Thompson even as “Indian Ink” cries out for a tougher creative hand. A great British dramatist shouldn’t try an audience’s patience with doodles.