Tom Stoppard’s "Arcadia," which opened Thursday night for a limited run at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, is set in an English country house (Sidley Park) in the early 19th century and in the same house in whatever constitutes the present. It is an atmosphere redolent of good breeding, good furniture, old china, pastoral vistas, and candle wax (remember that). So it is easy to miss, at first, the fact that it is as rigorously constructed as one of the mathematical theorems that form its poetic heart.
Parallel temporal universes are Stoppardian stock-in-trade, but "Arcadia" abounds in complex dualities of all kinds. In the present, an art historian named Hannah Jarvis is researching the history of the estate’s garden design with a view to tracing the moment when 18th-century classicism gave way to 19th-century Romanticism. A rival scholar believes he is on the trail of a career-making discovery about Lord Byron. In opposition to these two characters—obsessed with art, literature, and “personalities”—is the current heir, Valentine Coverly, who is a tortured mathematician attempting to wrest from his family’s 200-year-old game books (records of kills at shooting parties) an algorithm that will reveal a universal mathematical pattern. And that’s only in the present. There is much talk of the release of energy—a principle of physics that also applies to the unexpressed sexual tension among the guests and residents of the house.
Triangulate all of this to 200 years earlier—where a private tutor, Septimus Hodge, balances an untidy love life with his obligation to his teenage pupil, Thomasina Coverly, who is a budding mathematical genius. (This is Stoppard, so note, if you wish, that “hodge-podge” is defined as “a confused or disorderly mass or collection of things” and that there is a sly tugging at history’s skirts: Byron’s daughter Ada is credited, along with Charles Babbage, as being one of the originators of machine language.)
In the background, a maniacally fashionable landscape architect is busy dismantling Sidley Park’s classical garden in favor of the wild, irregular, and “picturesque,” at the same time that Thomasina is intuiting a comprehensive theory of all matter that shows how it must be formally, inevitably, mapped in time and space. With me so far?
Stoppard always lays his meta messages out on the table, where, like Thomasina’s lessons, we are meant to pick them up and make sense of them to complete the play’s circuitry, if you will. So there is a tortoise—and a hare just in case you didn’t get the part about time and relativity—and as the play’s action shifts back and forth between two centuries, we are made to realize that the lives of one set of characters is completed by the lives of the other.
And then there’s “literature and sex,” as the text calls it—inevitable if Bryon is one of your implied characters. But really, there is physics and sex: bodies in motion produce heat, and if it is not released, there is implosion. Septimus cannot act upon his barely acknowledged love for Thomasina, who dies by fire (I told you to remember the candle). And in the present, knowledge—and we and those characters have so much more of it—does not produce happiness either. Arcadias, remember, are re-enactments of Paradise, and we know what happened there. “But,” says Hannah, the play’s most problematic character, “it’s wanting to know that makes us matter.”
I saw the 1995 American premiere of "Arcadia," directed by Trevor Nunn, and some impressions linger and overlap with David Leveaux’s staging for the Barrymore. I remember the Nunn production emphasizing stillness and confrontation, while Leveaux seems to have taken as his ruling trope the idea of energy contained and released. Almost everyone is physically restless in some way—most especially Billy Crudup as the intellectually rapacious scholar Bernard Nightingale. (Crudup played Sepitmus Hodge in the Nunn production.) In the language of physics, he seems to be a neutron that is shy of a center. Lia Williams, as Hannah, also exhibits a perpetual restlessness without clear intention, but then, the role is written that way. We never get a back story, but it is clear that there is a hole in the landscape of Hannah that she is hoping to fill, even if she doesn’t know how, or with what.
To me, Thomasina Coverly and Septimus Hodge are the emotional center of the play—only Stoppard could conceive of a powerful affection based primarily on the love of ideas—and Bel Powley and Tom Riley convey this delicate construct beautifully.
Raul Esparza turns in a strong, sympathetic performance as Valentine, bedeviled by grouse statistics and unrequited love (Hannah) but able to derive a glowing happiness from explaining how math orders the world. (Fans of the television series Numbers will find this familiar.) And Grace Gummer is indeed graceful as the clueless upper-class twit Chloe Coverly.
One of the gentle ironies offered up by "Arcadia" is a reminder that the fashion for vapid women is relatively new. Eighteenth-century women—at least those of the privileged classes—had sharp minds and were encouraged to use them. This is evident in Margaret Colin’s polished performance as Septimus’ other serious love interest, Thomasina’s mother Lady Croom. And her presence in this cast is a pleasing reminder, outside the frame of the play, that if Hollywood is frequently unkind to mature woman actors, the stage is not. Colin had a thriving career in the late 1970s as a pert heroine; for "Arcadia," she has channeled that deft femininity into a nuanced stream of lively discourse and beautifully suggestive body language.
The play’s two worlds, and world views, are elegantly conveyed by Hildegard Bechtler’s set, Donald Holder’s lighting, and David Van Tieghem’s music.
What does "Arcadia" mean? “I’ve always been slightly bewildered by writers who were certain about things,” Stoppard told Ruth Leon in an interview for Playbill. So the play offers only contradictory possibilities, not certainties: all life tends to its end—“you cannot stir backwards”—but clearly, it is the living of it that matters. The play concludes with the perfect image of unresolved infinity—a waltz danced by a pair from each world on the brink of discovering something about themselves before they go.