It’s time to revise the history books with regard to Tom Stoppard, and where better to begin than with a production — David Leveaux’s shimmeringly beautiful new production of “Jumpers” — that itself makes history? Until now, or so conventional wisdom had it, Stoppard scholars could date this playwright’s discovery of the heart to “The Real Thing,” a play written 10 years after “Jumpers'” National Theater premiere. Not true. As reclaimed by Leveaux for the NT with much the same deepening qualities he brought to his current Broadway revival of “Nine,” “Jumpers” is shown to have had a heart, however submerged in dexterous verbal and acrobatic gamesmanship, all along.
Indeed, even as one revels in the fusillade of language that flows from the donnish moral philosopher George (Simon Russell Beale) like some sort of epistemological aria, one is always aware of the realm beyond language that is as ultimately unknowable as the galaxy encircling the walls of Vicki Mortimer’s busily shifting set. Is anybody there? George wants to know of God, whose existence (or not) prompts metaphysical somersaults in his stamina-defying speeches that thread their way throughout the play. But the same question is more directly and urgently posed by George’s younger, nakedly febrile (and sometimes just naked) wife, Dotty (Essie Davis). It is Dotty’s misfortune to find herself on the destabilizing perimeter of a brilliant husband’s ongoing debate with the world at large, which in turn makes insufficient room for such matters as the sustaining of a successful marriage.
As was true of “Nine,” a musical phantasmagoria whose book is as underwritten as “Jumpers” is contrastingly overripe, Stoppard’s play is shown by Leveaux at core to be about an ability to connect — not to mention, somewhat surprisingly in light of the dramatist involved, about the actual limitations of language where feeling is concerned. Every bit of available verbal finesse — and Stoppard’s hero has a quipster’s gift out of Oscar Wilde — can’t bring George into any mutually satisfying orbit with his wife, whose appeal for help merely leaves her bewildering spouse searching for his hare.
The result: For all that is hilarious about the play, some of it side-splittingly so (“Let’s not get it out of proportion,” we’re told of the downside of dying before one’s time, “it’s not as if the alternative were immortality”), what must once have seemed a linguistic high-wire act here lands with dizzying, often devastating force. In common with Jack O’Brien’s New York staging of “The Invention of Love” and Trevor Nunn’s original NT “Arcadia,” this “Jumpers” walks its own uniquely Stoppardian tightrope between blissfulness and tears, always allowing a lofty script concerned (among many other matters) with the moonwalk to establish a deeply humane common ground.
That may explain why a play that more or less passed me by when I first saw it in 1985 (Felicity Kendal and the late Paul Eddington were that revival’s stars) seems in every way enhanced now, though probably a bit too English in its references and circumlocutions to find matching success abroad. (Its Broadway run was notably brief.) Lest its terrain sound too rarefied, rest assured that Stoppard, as ever, remains a showman who knows the value of suspending your leading lady on a crescent moon above the stage to assert her credentials as chanteuse. (Davis sounds just good enough to engage the audience without being so good that we can’t share her self-critique.) And with the lineup of yellow-suited “jumpers” — “logical positivists, mainly,” in case you’re curious — embodying the springiness of the text, Stoppard has what amounts to a musical-comedy chorus in a play that functions simultaneously as murder mystery (a “jumper” dies at the start) and farce: the last most uproariously in a second-act misstep from George guaranteed to alarm any RSPCA members in the house.
Leveaux’s cast is simply beyond compare, though one can only imagine the further pitch they will reach as the singular emotional pendulum of the play comes into even fuller equilibrium. As the vice chancellor who is flagrantly carrying on an affair with Dotty, Jonathan Hyde cuts a heavenly amalgam of smoothie, jokesmith and someone deeply serious, not least in his description of atheism as “a crutch for those who can’t bear the reality of God.” At the same time, Nicholas Woodeson’s assumed sobriety as the showbiz-obsessed detective who at one point appears dressed as the African queen marks out his character, Bones, as Stoppard’s salute to Joe Orton, who surely would have loved the tale of the sleuth’s brother, an osteopath driven mad by possessing the surname Bones.
Leading lady Davis stole the show last fall in her NT debut as Stella Kowalski, winning an Olivier for her supporting perf as sister to Glenn Close’s Blanche du Bois. The Australian thesp is no less ravishing here, a Rubensian figure made up in equal measure of rampant libido and the kind of tearing, crippling doubts that mark out the crooner Dotty as a fleshier, psychically crumbling kin to Blanche.
As for Beale, not only is he that rare actor who actually seems to understand every line of an intellectual landscape traversing Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell, cabinet shuffles (all too timely today) and “The Concept of Knowledge,” George’s career-making tome. What separates this perf from even this actor’s supreme norm is a command of comedy (“very good,” George squeals in act one, finding infectious pleasure in his own wit) that nonetheless contains within it hints of self-hatred and collapse. Watch as George catalogs his physical shortcomings in act two, having monitored his emotional ones throughout: The professor’s reckoning with faith is inseparable from an ever-restless, adventurous actor’s intuitive hotline to feeling. And perhaps only someone who has played such a searching, questing Hamlet could make so unsentimental a case for true belief. After seeing “Jumpers,” and to paraphrase a song from “The Real Thing,” I’m a believer, too.