Weaving and wading through a sloppy, choppy wave of licensed-to-drink celebrants on St. Patrick's Day is probably not the best way to approach Arcadia, Sir Tom Stoppard's heady meditation on order and disorder in different centuries.
A clear and focused mind is mandatory for all who pass through the portals of the Ethel Barrymore Theatre these days. This revival of Sir Tom's 1993 opus fits two different time-frames (1809-1812 and the laptop present) into a handsome single set by Hildegard Bechtler (the garden room of a posh Derbyshire country home called Sidley Park), with characters from both eras starting with their own scenes, then bleeding into each others' and carrying on with overlapping business as usual.
The curtain rises in the 19th century, on a tutoring session between the dashing, randy Septimus Hodge (Tom Riley) and his precocious 13-year-old charge, Thomasina Coverly (Bel Powley), whose scatterbrained but no less randy mum, Lady Croom (Margaret Colin), is busy giving the estate a landscape facelift, from Classical to Gothic. There's so much chatter between teacher and pupil on Fermat's Last Theory and determinism and such that some arcane dirty-talk seeps in almost unnoticed — "carnal embrace," "sexual congress," et al — so it's clear that the hyper-perceptive teen is hip to the prodigious bed-hopping going on outside her purview.
Lord Byron slept here, it seems — and around and all over the immediate premises — and, 'tis said, dueled to the death a cuckolded poet he had previously panned in print. Enter, in Scene Two, a couple of dueling academicians of today — Bernard Nightingale (Billy Crudup) and Hannah Jarvis (Lia Williams). He is on the coldest case possible, trying to link Lord Byron to the death of this bad poet. And she, too, is trying to force all the pieces to fit together, investigating a hermit on the grounds (who is actually a figment of Thomasina's high-flown imagination). On the sidelines are latter-day Coverlys, Chloe (Grace Gummer) and Valentine (Raul Esparza), a math whiz and also-ran to Bernard for Hannah's hand. Around and around these worlds twirl until a representative couple from each century is left standing, and then they waltz off into the gathering shadows of time.
Riley and Powley, in their Broadway debuts, and Williams, a Tony nominee for David Hare's 1996 Skylight, all got Equity permission to go into that fadeout waltz, and Williams is particularly keen on its poignant import. "I think the point of the waltz thing at the end is that we are spinning around in time," she said, "We're all the same, and we come and go. There is nothing between the centuries, actually — except for information, really. Humanity is humanity is humanity."
Poignant also describes the feeling of the fourth dancer, Crudup, who has been on this dance floor before — in 1995, playing Septimus Hodge. Arcadia actually bookends his Broadway career to date, and half of his eight plays there have been Stoppards. He didn't live to Part III, but his performance of Vissarion Belinsky in the first two parts of The Coast of Utopia won him a Tony for Featured Actor.
Simon Hall, the agent who represented Crudup then and now, admitted to tearing up at the end, touched by the passage of time. And the actor was also moved.
"It was amazing to be a part of that experience," Crudup conceded. "I knew it would be a rewarding experience revisiting this play because it was so important to my own history as an actor, but I didn't quite really comprehend how provocative it would be in terms of compressing time — those 15 years really transpired — and it's embodied in that moment where I'm standing side by side with the new Septimus.
"Our ending was staged very similarly to the original [by Trevor Nunn] so to be on the opposite side of it each night is really incredible. The play speaks about the fluidity of time, how it's not so rigid as we think. Things are kinda in the ether, y'know? That moment actually happens to me every night. It's a once-in-a-lifetime kind of experience. You think of how you were then, and how you are now — and not all of that is good. You measure yourself against the hope that you had at that age. The truth is that when I was playing Septimus, I was new on Broadway. I was being welcomed in a certain way because I was in that role, and I was thrilled beyond repair to be doing it. You have everything in your fingertips in that moment. Now, when you're 42 and you've worked for a while, you don't have everything in your fingertips anymore, and that becomes relevant and apparent in those moments."
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Ironically, the man who cast Crudup in this had no idea of this professional symmetry. "The funny thing about that was that I thought of Billy for this on and off for several years," said director David Leveaux "and I went to ask him to play Bernard, and it was only then that I found out he had played Septimus in 1995. I didn't know that. So when Billy and I met for lunch, he said, 'I was kinda amazed when you asked because I didn't know I was mature enough now to play Bernard Nightingale, given that I played Septimus when I was 27.' And I said to him, 'Well, Billy, I don't think maturity is necessarily high on Bernard Nightingale's resume.' Billy, like me, feels that Arcadia has been part of his life for a long time."
In truth, this is only Leveaux's second Arcadia in as many years. "Yes, we did it in London two years ago. Tom Stoppard said — and I entirely agreed with him — that, if we were going to do Arcadia in New York and start again, we shouldn't make it a London transfer. We should actually go out and try to find the actors in New York City who are available to do it here. What we ended up with was a quite complicated ensemble of three British and nine Americans, and we rapidly became an ensemble. But it took eight or nine months to put together this group."
One has to ask how he got the play's academicians up to such a vaulted level of performance. "We talked a little about what we called 'viral enthusiasm,' which is to say you become attracted to somebody who has an enthusiasm for their particular field — even if you yourself don't know much about that field. A passion for a certain thing is deeply attractive so we talked about how important it is to have enthusiasm, whether it's for poetry, for science, for gardens, whatever it is. When you watch somebody engaged at that level — at whatever they're engaged at — there's something compelling about it. That's what I meant by 'viral enthusiasm.' I thought it was a play based on individual enthusiasms, some of which were leading people into terrible, wrong alleys — and, in the case of Bernard Nightingale, completely up the wrong path. But that doesn't matter. What matters is the enthusiasm."
He also whispered another neat bit of direction into Crudup's ear: "I told him, 'Don't forget Bernard Nightingale is a child,' which Billy had an immediate response to because he knew what I wanted. There's still a child inside Bernard Nightingale."
But Crudup was at a loss about how he got there. "Things happen in rehearsal," he said, "and you try to allow your own sense of creativity and imagination to find its way in — in a way that's helpful. Sometimes, it happens in an extravagant way. Sometimes, it happens in a subtle way. You just hope that it's helpful, and you count on the director and the playwright to shut it down when it's not helpful. They kept encouraging me to a certain kind of way that spurred my imagination." If one wondered how Stoppard had concocted such an unusual cerebral stew, no one was asking him, but some did approach Leveaux, who helpfully provided the following clue: "The only thing that he has said about that was that he had a number of books on his bookshelf that he dependently needed reading — books about science, books about mathematics and of course Byron and the 19th century — and then there came a moment when they all basically wanted to fall into the same play.
|photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN|
"I don't think he set out working on Arcadia thinking Arcadia was going to be about a particular thing. He just let those elements, which, I suppose he won't mind my saying, don't belong to each other —19th century romantic poetry and modern science, what is the connection? — but in Tom's mind they connected. As Hannah says, 'It's the wanting to know that makes it matter.' He wrote an emotional play as a consequence of putting together a bunch of apparently disparate ideas."
Stoppard was hard-pressed to remember if he'd ever used the parallel time-frame device before ("Not that I recall, I don't think so.") —but it was needed to point up how one epoch misconstrues another. (Richard Greenberg came to the same conclusion with just one generational jump in Three Days of Rain.)
"I'm sure one generation is capable of understanding another," the playwright willingly allowed, "but, on the other hand, I suppose one of the things that the play's about is how difficult it is to actually agree on the facts, which belie people's memories of history. But one can't be dogmatic and say they can or they can't. Clearly, we all know from the way that we live our own lives and the way that newspapers record history and so on that actually agreement on the past is quite difficult to arrive at."
Gotham Hall at Broadway and 36th Street, with its rotunda-plus-pillars, proved to be a perfect post-play party site for Arcadia, and its revelers wore no green.
Esparza had good sport in the press room, ragging reporters who mistook the plastic mechanical tortoise that he works with ("Lightning") for the real thing.
"No, " he said dryly, "this is not my first time working with a tortoise. It's my second. I played Septimus when I was 26 [at Meadow Brook Theatre in Rochester, MI]. He bites. You don't work with kids or tortoises or flying cars. Or, as it turns out in the same theatre, flying Spider-Men."
Colin, beautifully gowned in the play by Gregory Gale, cinched her performance with the right sound, which you could call haughty and naughty. "I like that she's so sexually aggressive and so articulate," she admitted. "I like the progression of the character. I think she's a complicated, interesting woman who likes to run her house her way, and she's trying to hold control of the things she's responsible for. She's also romantically curious and expresses herself with liaisons."
Gummer was aglow with her brand-new status of Broadway Star, something her mother hasn't been since 1977. (Where are you, Meryl? The kids are all right.)
"I feel so lucky and honored to be here," she stammered out. "Omigod, it's so much fun. I'm having the time of my life every single night. I wake up in the morning, and I think, 'I get to do this again?' And I just can't wait to get to the theatre."
The Broadway-bowing Brits who could pass for a law firm — Powley and Riley — were equally ecstatic about their rise in stock. The latter said he hadn't received any pointers from Crudup about playing Septimus, but "I think I would have welcomed them because such an amazing actor and took the world by storm with it, but he's too gracious. Instead of giving me notes, he just gave me compliments. He said how nice it was to hear the words. And, I must say, I love speaking Tom's words. It's rare to speak the kind of language you wish you could speak in real life and no one can."
Glenn Fleshler, whom Septimus books for a dueling double-bill, doffed his hat to director Leveaux. "It was a joy to rehearse this play with him," he said. "He is such a generous, wonderful director and person. You wouldn't have known he'd staged this play before. He never acted as though he knew more than us. He really seemed to learn it every day and dig deeper and deeper. We all learned it together."
It was not lost on Noah Robbins that he had gone in two years and two plays from narrator (in Brighton Beach Memoirs) to near-mute (in a dual role here), but "the cast is amazing on stage and off, and I want it to go on forever."
First-nighers included Elaine Stritch; a thickened Twiggy with hubby Leigh Lawson; a couple of Zoes (Zoe Kazan and Zoe Lister-Jones); the Mills sister act (Juliet and Hayley); Oscar and Tony winner Mercedes Ruehl; Tony winner Jim Dale and wife Julie; conductor Patrick Vaccariello; Firdous Barnji; producer Liz McCann, promising her You Can't Take It With You revival for Broadway in August; Josh Hamilton from The Coast of Utopia; Charity Wakefield; The House of Blue Leaves architect John Guare; Jessica Collins, who's double-summering in the Park with Shakespeare ("They're figuring out which parts right now"); John Pankow; Carolyn McCormick (Mrs. Byron Jennings); Alice Eve; Mamie Gummer ("She's my sister, after all!"); Hamish Linklater; and The Scarlett Pimpernel himself, Douglas Sills.
The captain of my aisle, two rows from the lip of the stage, was Angela Lansbury, who gazed approvingly, even adoringly at the hard-working actors on stage all evening. What a warm, accepting friendly, famous face to smile up to them at the curtain call! From where I sat, it was 2011's Best Performance of a Member of the Audience by a member of the audience — how we all should feel at the theatre.