Tom Stoppard’s brilliance can be a little scary. One wouldn’t want to meet him in a dark alley, intellectually speaking. But there’s nothing chilly about his “Arcadia,” an extravagantly erudite mixture of high comedy and deeply serious ruminations on free will and determinism, rationalism and romanticism, the passion for knowledge and the knowledge of passion. With all its talk of Fermat’s theorem, “iterated algorithms” and Byron arcana, it’s a heady if not dizzying brew, but it’s also a play bursting with a more easily assimilated appeal, a sympathy for the ultimate human predicament — that time’s “procession is very long and life is very short,” as one character puts it. The Mark Taper Forum’s production does this complex play handsome justice.
The story opens at the country estate of the Coverly family, Sidley Park, in rural England, 1809. Thomasina Cov-erly (Angela Bettis), just shy of 14, is dazzling her tutor Septimus Hodge (Douglas Weston) with her aptitude for maths and physics (“Do you think God is a Newtonian?” she asks). But Hodge has more mundane matters to attend to, as his fleeting meeting in the gazebo with the Coverlys’ houseguest Mrs. Chater has come to the attention of Mr. Chater (Mark Capri), who demands satisfaction — much as Mrs. Chater did, as Hodge points out in one of Stoppard’s wittiest exchanges.
Hodge avoids a duel by pretending to admire Mr. Chater’s bad verse, and promising to praise it in print. (The encounters between Chater and Hodge are played dangerously broadly here under Robert Egan’s generally astute direction, perhaps to build up audience goodwill before the barrage of mathematical and historical data to follow.)
Elsewhere about the grounds are Thomasina’s mother Lady Croom (played with smashing wit by Kandis Chappell, who also looks smashing in the most elaborate of Marianna Elliott’s expert period costumes), who is at odds with her new gardener, a man intent on remaking her classic English garden in the new “picturesque” style, with crumbling faux ruins and a faux hermitage, currently sans hermit.
And then there’s Lord Byron, a friend of Hodge’s (though he never appears) whose visit to Sidley Park brings us to the contemporary portion of the play, when once again the estate is host to visitors, in this case a pair of academics. Hannah Jarvis (Kate Burton) is first on the scene, using the metaphor of the Sidley Park hermit — though she still doesn’t know who he is — to illustrate “the nervous breakdown of the Romantic Imagination.” The other is Ber-nard Nightingale, played with scene-stealing pomp and vigor by John Vickery, a man of many sneers. Nightingale is intent on discovering — and making his talkshow reputation on — just what Byron was doing at Sidley Park, whether he wrote those two scathing reviews of Chater’s verse, and how any of it may have related to his sudden and notoriously unexplained departure for foreign climes.
As we watch the academics, aided by the young Coverly descendants Chloe (Suzanne Cryer) and Valentine (Daniel Zelman), fight desperately to unlock the literary secrets of Sidley Park, the play shifts back and forth in time, revealing where their carefully constructed theories go comically awry. The zeal for knowledge animates almost everyone on stage, even as the implacably messy forces of nature and time — not to mention sex, “the attraction Newton left out” — betray them.
This is most poignantly illustrated when Hannah and Valentine stumble upon Thomasina’s study books, which reveal that she may have discovered an astonishing arithmetical equation describing the inevitable decline of the universe, no less. But fate had a less happy end than scientific renown in store for both Thomasina and her tutor. In the play’s most haunting development, we see that Thomasina’s sadness at the idea of lost knowledge (“How can we sleep for grief?” she wails, discussing the burning of the library at Alexandria) is tragically reflected in her own life, while Hodge’s assurance that all knowledge will eventually be recovered is borne out a century later.
Among a cast that is virtually without a weak link, Burton’s performance as Hannah is particularly noteworthy. Hers is a part that has seemed underdeveloped previously, but she brings out Hannah’s connections with Tho-masina with marvelous, subtly impassioned playing. Hannah is devoted to her work, studiously beyond the passion of the flesh (she rejects Valentine’s attentions), just as Thomasina is poised at the point before the chaos of love enters life’s equation; and both are patronized as women scholars. Zelman is also excellent as the prickly, intelli-gent Valentine, making complex scientific ideas roll off his tongue as if he’s discussing the lunch menu.
On first viewing, “Arcadia” is undeniably overwhelming, but it is suffused with more than enough wit and warmth to keep us under its learned spell. And, blessedly, David Jenkins has fashioned a beautiful set whose lovely fringe of green grass, representing the estate’s grounds, can profitably be gazed at to soothe the mind when there’s a danger of overheating.