There is, quite probably, a lot less to “Jumpers” than meets the eye — or rather the ear. But how could it be otherwise? Tom Stoppard’s exuberantly surreal comedy contains long disquisitions on the nature of God, the origins of being, the morality of aesthetics (or maybe it was the aesthetics of morality). That’s in addition to the meditations on the semiotics of moon landings, the nightclub act, the gymnastics routines, the murder mystery and the piteous depiction of a moribund marriage.
The play is a bit like a delicious rerun of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” that is continually being interrupted by a lecture-demonstration on moral philosophy. Several lecture-demonstrations, actually. And if David Leveaux’s glittering new production, led by a movingly befuddled Simon Russell Beale and a captivatingly gaga Essie Davis, inspires more admiration for the comical hijinx than for the windy philosophizing, so be it. It’s still a rare treat on Broadway: a comedy that inspires, indeed demands, intellectual engagement.
Whether Broadway audiences will be willing to get engaged is in question, however. The production is the first in a much-ballyhooed new alliance between London’s white-hot incubator of theatrical greatness, Nicholas Hytner’s National Theater, where it premiered, and Broadway producers Bill Haber and Bob Boyett. A financial success would be an auspicious start for the partnership, but it may be a long shot.
Although it can count on a celebratory notice from the New York Times this time around (Ben Brantley raved when it opened in London), Stoppard’s play flopped after about a month’s run in 1974. And audiences have proven fickle in recent seasons when it comes to tony British revivals: A first-rate “Private Lives” from the West End didn’t quite recoup two seasons ago, and that play is hardly an unknown commodity. There is already some evidence that Stoppard’s self-consciously cerebral play is leaving audiences nonplussed: At the reviewed performance, both Neil Simon and Joan Rivers, two New Yorkers known for sensitive funny bones, left (separately) at intermission. They had a bit of company, too.
Leveaux’s production does, in fact, take longer to hit its stride on Broadway than it did in London. This is probably because Beale, the fellow in the dowdy sweater spitting out subordinate clauses at a dizzying pace, is not a beloved and highly respected actor here, as he is in Britain (this is his Broadway debut). And this gifted but physically unprepossessing performer must endear himself to us by way of some of Stoppard’s most densely written, digression-packed monologues, which explore the existence (or not) of God and other matters of great moment.
But it’s hard to imagine audiences resisting Beale’s singular charms for long. As George Moore, the second-tier philosophy professor who is the still center of the play’s endlessly swirling comic universe, Beale is infinitely touching and funny, exuding a melancholy wistfulness that gives the play a necessary grounding in emotional truth.
Although he can sure talk the talk about first causes and the unmoved mover, Beale’s George, who seems to exist in a state of permanent apology, remains touchingly ignorant of the origins of the mayhem that will engulf him in the course of the play. His life bears out his erudite rants about the maddening uncertainties at the heart of existence.
Neither he nor his wife, Dorothy (Davis), an ex-philosophy student who went on to become the “first lady of the musical stage” (a well-worn career path, that), can recall just how or when the passion drained out of their marriage. George speaks eloquently of the gaps between image and reality, but he is too timid to explore the obvious significance of the daily visits paid to his wife, in her bedroom, by the chairman of his university’s philosophy department, who happens to be Dorothy’s psychiatrist, too.
The play’s most supremely funny running gag involves George’s sustained ignorance of the violent act that sets the play’s orbiting plot in motion. It seems that in the course of a night of revelry, presided over by a soused Dorothy while George was holed up in his study, one of the team of acrobat-philosophers from George’s university was shot dead. The culprit is unknown, but the corpse hanging in the closet of Dorothy’s boudoir must be dealt with.
Hold on — acrobat-philosophers? Indeed Stoppard’s play derives much of its humor from such lunatic juxtapositions, learned inquiries into the nature of right action set alongside gags about a disappearing rabbit plus a murder investigation replete with Cockney detective (the wonderful Nicholas Woodeson) erupting as George earnestly holds forth on Bertrand Russell and the “Principia Ethica.”
The adjective “lunatic” is not chosen idly, either: That old devil moon plays a serious supporting role in the proceedings. Dorothy blames her breakdown on the emotional dislocation caused by a moon landing: “Not only are we no longer the still center of God’s universe,” she laments mournfully, “we’re not even uniquely graced by his footprint in man’s image.” Accordingly, Vicki Mortimer’s chic, silvery settings are a playground of lunar imagery, with even the lamps and TV in Dorothy’s bedroom designed as white orbs. And the actress herself might have been cast for her lovely, full-moon face, which isn’t to say her suitability for the role ends there: Davis depicts Dorothy’s quivering fragility in continually sharp, sensitive ways.
The emotional transparency of the two leading performances is crucial in sanding away some of the play’s inherent opacity, as is Leveaux’s lucid direction. For Stoppard’s writing is often needlessly verbose here, and the ideas in “Jumpers” are not as elegantly integrated into the proceedings as they are in later plays like “Arcadia” and “The Invention of Love.” Witty and elegant though his phrasing always is, Stoppard can be intellectually flashy in a tedious, self-congratulatory way — and, in his writing for George, he often is. Far fewer words would suffice to underscore the poignance of George’s retreat from the concrete problems of life into the solitude of theory.
Filling the stage with learned talk about meaningful ideas is not quite the same thing as writing a meaningful play. But George would no doubt assert the subjectivity of such terms as “meaningful.” And then he’d probably go on about the slippery nature of all aesthetic judgments, and the absence of an absolute standard of morality, too. Trying to pinpoint the meanings of “Jumpers” is like trying to catch hold of a moonbeam. Which is more or less the whole idea, come to think of it.