Some eyebrows were raised last year when Lincoln Center Theater announced plans to produce two Tom Stoppard plays in one season, “Hapgood” followed by “Arcadia.””Hapgood” already had a checkered history, including a Los Angeles production that failed to transfer to New York, and Lincoln Center Theater’s agreement to do it was perceived as the price it paid for getting the heralded “Arcadia.” The latter’s London debut was a triumph for the author and Trevor Nunn, who staged it at the Royal National Theater, and the play is still a fixture in the West End.
But with a knockout production of “Hapgood,” staged by Jack O’Brien and starring Stockard Channing, having recently concluded, and the arrival of Nunn’s new staging of “Arcadia,” the benefits of the plan make hash of any quibbles. “Hapgood” homed in on what may well be the playwright’s holy grail: the merging of the intellectual and the emotional. Even if it never quite got there, the trip was a pleasure.
Like “Hapgood,””Arcadia” also operates on several very high planes — Classicism vs. Romanticism; determinism vs. free will; hope vs. nihilism. But for those willing not to get too tangled up in the byplay, “Arcadia”– even in this uneven and in some aspects disappointing production — hits the bullseye, and its target is the heart. And while “Hapgood” may rightfully be seen as a warmup for this play, “Arcadia” fulfills the promise of Stoppard’s 1983 boulevard comedy, “The Real Thing.” In “Arcadia,” he gets everything right.
Split between the first years of the past century and the end of the present one, “Arcadia” unfolds at a country estate in Derbyshire. Sidley Park is in the throes of change in 1809, and of historical explication in 1995.
In the earlier century, a brilliant, rakish young tutor named Septimus Hodge (Billy Crudup) has long since been outdistanced by his protege, Thomasina Coverly (Jennifer Dundas), a math prodigy who, still shy of her 14th birthday, has discovered a rough algebraic formulation that many decades later will be seen as a rudimentary blueprint of modern physics concepts — chaos theory, thermodynamics, entropy — and may help predict how the universe will end. Septimus is lusted after by various residents and hangers-on at the estate, and is a pal of the unseen Lord Byron, who occasionally hunts there.
Thomasina’s mother, the archly witty Lady Croom (Lisa Banes), has engaged landscape architect Richard Noakes (Peter Maloney) to transform the estate’s Classical gardens after the trendier Romantic fashion, complete with unruly forests, fallen obelisks and a hermitage resembling a hovel.
Also present are the blustering Ezra Chater (Paul Giamatti), a writer of doggerel whom Septimus has cuckolded; and Captain Brice (David Manis), Lady Croom’s brother.
In the present, historian Hannah Jarvis (Blair Brown) has been invited to Sidley Park, where she is researching the landscape changes that have taken place over two centuries. She is joined by the flamboyant Bernard Nightingale (Victor Garber), a climber from academe drawn there by rumors of Byron’s part in a scandal at the estate.
In six scenes that shift between the two periods, we see what actually took place and how clues are then interpreted by the present-day historians. Skeptical at first, Septimus gradually comes to understand the significance of Thomasina’s formula, even as the girl herself struggles to find nature, life, in her numbers. The cool, impenetrable Hannah is obsessed with the “hermit” of the hermitage, who in truth began as a sketch made jokingly on a rendering of the building but who, like so much else in the play, takes on a darker significance.
Thomasina grabs our attention, seeking, in her iterated logarithms, the presence of God, every bit as much as Wordsworth at Tintern Abbey but with the yearning ache of a girl on the verge of womanhood. She hunts for nature in algebra, and though the formulas defy her, she persists. “If there is an equation for a curve like a bell, there must be an equation for one like a bluebell,” she argues with Septimus, “and if a bluebell, why not a rose?”
The exchange is echoed in one between Bernard and Valentine Coverly (Robert Sean Leonard), the present-day scion of the estate and a mathematician who has discovered Thomasina’s notebooks and their disturbing revelations. Though Valentine does most of the play’s intellectual hard labor, he’s reduced to tears when Bernard argues that, given a choice between science and poetry, he’ll take poetry: “Don’t confuse progress with perfectability,” Bernard sneers at Valentine. “A great poet is always timely. A great philosopher is an urgent need. There’s no rush for Isaac Newton. … Quarks, quasars — big bangs, black holes — who gives a shit? … If knowledge isn’t self-knowledge, it isn’t doing much, mate.”
And it’s Valentine and his sister Chloe (Haviland Morris) who realize that the fly in all this highfalutin ointment is sex –“the attraction Newton forgot” in spelling out a deterministic universe that proves to be anything but. “The unpredictable and the predetermined unfold together to make everything the way it is,” Valentine says.
The hunger for meaning and discovery palpable in every line of the play ultimately links both halves of “Arcadia” in a seventh scene that interweaves these imperfect pilgrims in a haunting tableau vivant.
The play begins with Thomasina asking Septimus to define the term “carnal embrace,” then presents several examples of it in two different eras, and concludes with the doomed Thomasina and Septimus waltzing on the eve of a birthday she will not live to see, while Hannah accepts the hand of another Coverly descendant, the mute Gus (John Griffin), for a dance of their own.
I wish I could be as enthusiastic about this new production as I am about Stoppard’s achievement, but that’s impossible. The casting is a hash of disappointments seasoned with a few outstanding performances; and while the essentials of Mark Thompson’s elegant set — a bright day-room with a book-laden table and a series of high windows looking out into the undefined gardens — have been re-created, the whole has inexplicably been crammed onto the Beaumont’s thrust.
And as great a theater as the Beaumont is, “Arcadia” is its undoing: The actors fight an echo that makes them impossible to understand much of the time (and they’re further muzzled by English accents that bring them up short).
Some of this might have been overcome by better casting, but while the smaller roles are well filled — notably Giamatti’s foolish poet manque and Banes’ preening Lady Croom — most of the major ones are wanting. Thomasina requires a quality at once ethereal and preternaturally assured; Dundas is neither, and she and Crudup are at a loss to re-create the electricity generated by Emma Fielding and Rufus Sewell, the original Thomasina and Septimus. As Hannah — unfortunately, the most underwritten role, with the reason for her aloofness as much a mystery at the end of the play as at the beginning — Brown is almost wholly unsympathetic, as is Garber’s way-over-the-top Nightingale.
Far better is Morris’ Chloe, lithe and winning. But to understand what’s been lost in the transition, one need only look to Leonard’s Valentine. With conviction and easy grace, he makes the play’s heaviest lines weightless and ultimately puts a natural face on much talk about iterated algorithms and the theory of heat loss. It’s a beautiful perf that should have been one among many but regrettably, isn’t.