Despite the mashup of Brit/Yank acting styles, helmer David Leveaux delivers a ravishing revival (originating in London in 2009) of “Arcadia,” Tom Stoppard’s seriously playful 1993 meditation on the disintegration of Newtonian order and the joys of chaos. In a flourish of literary invention, play opens in 1809 in the library of an English country estate where a tutor is instructing his prodigiously gifted student; it then leaps forward two centuries to observe two modern-day scholars in the same room, spinning theories about the shattering events that transpired in that lovely setting on that fateful spring weekend so long ago.
Audiences needn’t sweat over Newtonian physics, chaos theory, or the uses of a theodolite to appreciate Stoppard’s whimsical way of humanizing science. Although the play’s intricate patterns of events are illustrative of specific scientific theories, the boisterous forces of chaos that keep disrupting these classical patterns are entirely human.
Sex, for instance, is very much in the air (and in the gazebo and in my lady’s chamber) at stately Sidley Park in April 1809, when we are introduced to the dashing young tutor Septimus Hodge (heartthrob material, in Brit thesp Tom Riley’s exciting Broadway debut) and his precocious student, 13-year-old Thomasina Coverly (Bel Powley, disarming but awfully shrill).
Meanwhile, the intellectual challenges absorbing Thomasina, a young genius with original ideas, range from free will to Fermat’s Last Theorem.
She and Septimus spread out their notebooks and research materials on a massive library desk that is the work-of-art centerpiece of Hildegard Bechtler’s handsome Georgian set. That magnificent library table — along with the books, writing implements, and lump of a turtle that SeptiThomaThomasina handled — is still in place when the scene shifts to the present day. There’s not a single jarring note to the transition. The centuries float away like passing clouds in Donald Holder’s subtle lighting design, and Gregory Gale’s modern-day costumes even pick up the muted palette of the period outfits.
The three scholars who now claim the room seem to be working at cross-purposes. Hannah Jarvis (Lia Williams, brimming with intellectual vitality) is doing research on the hermit who once lived at Sidley Park. Bernard Nightingale (a pompous literary poseur in Billy Crudup’s delicious perf) is pursuing his theory that Lord Byron shot and killed a wronged husband in a duel fought on these grounds. And Valentine Coverly (the house skeptic, in Raul Esparza’s quietly amused perf), an Oxford post-grad in biology, maintains the detached scientist’s crushing disdain of both their literary houses.
Way back when, someone in the Coverly household was an unheralded genius, and the lovely mystery of the play is whether any of these modern brains has the open-minded intelligence to figure out who it was — and why their scientific discoveries never saw the light of day.
Stoppard toys with the question, teasing us with clues and withholding the solution until the final (gorgeously staged) scenes, when characters from time past and present interact in the same room, paging the same books across the same table and at one point, literally waltzing right past one another. On this level alone, the play is an enchantment.
But Stoppard being Stoppard, there are many patterns woven into the multi-layered text, some more richly dramatized than others, but all of them, as one character puts it, “making themselves out of nothing.” A subplot about landscape gardening wittily captures the tectonic cultural shift from high classicism to Byronic romanticism. The papers, notebooks and sketchpads that pass from one generation to end up in the hands of another illustrate the iterative theory in mathematics that whatever is lost will eventually be recovered. Even that long-lived tortoise serves as proof of the continuity of life.
In such a universe, “Arcadia” stands to live forever.