The experiment of the title isn’t the only one on hand in Shelagh Stephenson’s play “An Experiment With an Air Pump.” The author herself is attempting to write a Tom Stoppard play — specifically “Arcadia” — and the results are not particularly satisfactory, despite a handsomely crafted and deftly staged production from Manhattan Theater Club.
Like “Arcadia,” “Air Pump” takes place in a grand English manor, in this case located in Newcastle. Like “Arcadia,” it moves back and forth between two centuries, the very late 18th and the very late 20th. Like “Arcadia,” it concerns the death of a young woman and the attempts by the present-day occupants of the house to unravel a mystery shrouded in years of silence. And both past and present-day characters from “Air Pump” bear resemblances to those of “Arcadia.” The literary scholars of Stoppard become Stephenson’s scientists; the brilliant, doomed female mathematician of “Arcadia” is a brilliant, doomed female linguist (and servant) in “Air Pump.”
Stephenson could hardly have chosen a more difficult master to emulate. It takes a deeply cultivated intellect allied with a delicate literary sensibility to pull off the kind of cerebral plays Stoppard specializes in. Stephenson certainly gives it her best shot: Her play is packed with debates about the moral dimensions of genetic research and perorations on the values of science vs. those of art and literature. There’s a little proto-feminism thrown in for good measure, some references to historical events (plebeians riot for food outside the drawing room windows) and the kind of highbrow cleverness that Stoppard is also fond of: Mr. Roget, of thesaural fame, is a character in Stephenson’s play.
Full credit to Stephenson for aiming high, but she fails to hit her mark. “An Experiment With an Air Pump” is a strenuously ambitious play, but a rather dull and talky one. Stephenson’s dialogue is plenty fancy but not particularly brilliant: She seems to think that they flung around a lot more words a couple of centuries ago, and couldn’t possibly use 10 when 50 would do the trick. The resulting cannonade of chat grows very wearisome indeed.
In brief, the latter-day plot concerns Ellen (Linda Emond), a female genetic scientist trying to decide whether to take a job that involves the use of controversial “pre-embryonic” cell research. When not passing time mulling his moral qualms about his wife’s job, her English prof husband (Daniel Gerroll) broods on the mysterious set of bones found by contractors preparing the soon-to-be-vacated house for renovation.
A couple of centuries back, Gerroll and Emond play unhappily married Susannah and Joseph Fenwick. He’s a scientist, anti-monarchist and sympathizer with the common people; she’s neglected. (Most painful moment: Susannah’s hysterical dinner-table breakdown about her husband’s indifference, a scene hardly likely to be enacted at such a time in such a place in such a manner.) Their daughters Maria (Clea Lewis) and Harriet (Ana Reeder) quarrel and put on an inane play for the benefit of their parents and guests Roget (Christopher Duva) and Thomas Armstrong (Jason Butler Harner), an amoral young scientist whose nefarious designs on the hyper-intelligent, hump-backed family maid Isobel (Seana Kofoed) will end in tragedy.
OK, so that wasn’t so brief — neither is the play.
Nevertheless, director Doug Hughes has staged it with impressive smoothness and dispatch. John Lee Beatty’s elegant set consists of a bare, whitewashed room into which various furnishings of different periods are clandestinely whisked. Catherine Zuber’s costumes are pretty and unobtrusive, Brian MacDevitt’s lighting nicely subtle and various.
The performers have some trouble finding the personal cores of characters who still seem too much like literary paper dolls. Most fare better in the 20th century than the 18th, including Emond, Gerroll and Harner, playing a friendly and credulous electrician who engages in lengthy chats with Ellen. Lewis and Kofoed never make it to the 20th century, but they both give credible performances as, respectively, the comic relief and the tragic figure of the 18 th.
MTC produced Stephenson’s “The Memory of Water” last season on its second stage. A less ambitious comedy-drama about a death in the family and the ruptures it stirs, it was flawed but more deeply felt than “Air Pump,” an arid experiment in dramatic ventriloquism. Stephenson needs to cultivate her own voice, not someone else’s. England doesn’t need another Stoppard — it already has a sufficiently accomplished and prolific one. Why bring coals to Newcastle, as it were?