Review: Arcadia

Stoppard's 1993 pastoral brain tickler returns to Broadway.

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  • Photograph: Carol Rosegg

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Photograph: Carol Rosegg

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Time Out Ratings

<strong>Rating: </strong>3/5

Despite Arcadia's recondite colloquies on grad-school math and historical topics—iterated algorithims, chaos theory, the history of English gardening and landscaping—a successful revival of it shouldn't be rocket science: Cast the best (preferably English) actors and hire a director who can steer them through Stoppard's dense thickets of verbal wit and intellectual gamesmanship. People routinely call Arcadia their favorite Stoppard. Indeed, it has a cleverly bisected structure and surprising large-heartedness. But it doesn't work with anything less than a great cast. A play this talky needs an ensemble of great voices.

There's physicality to the parts as well, but a gold-standard brain and tongue are needed first. And neither this Anglo-American ensemble nor David Leveaux's pretty but empty staging gels. More than half the actors are miscast—from both sides of the pond. The warm and sensible Margaret Colin never settles into the aristocratic chill of Lady Croom, and Bel Powley's mathematical prodigy Thomasina is so nasally shrill and unvarying in tone, it's hard to care what precocity the girl utters. Billy Crudup's vain, fidgety, overly snide Bernard Nightingale smacks of overcompensation, and Ral Esparza sulks his way through Valentine's soaring speeches about probability and pattern. However, in the smallish role of minor poet Chater, David Turner stands out as a perfectly crafted fop, and Lia Williams's romantically wary historian Hannah Jarvis has just the right mix of pluck and savvy.

Stoppard piles his dramaturgical table with so much food for thought and sparkling wit, you might mistakenly think it can survive a middling cast. Shuttling between 1809 and the present day, Arcadia covers acres of intellectual territory. Rival lit crits Nightingale and Jarvis try to discover whether or not Lord Byron stayed at Sidley Park, and discern the connections among Byron's former classmate, tutor Septimus Hodge (Tom Riley), a duel thought to have been fought between Chater and Byron, and a hermit who lived and died on the grounds. Stoppard works in young Thomasina's prophetic proofs and some lovely speeches on the tension between nature and art, thinking and feeling, and classical and romantic aesthetics. Arcadia is a play with marvelous potential to amuse, delight and stir the brain, but this misjudged revival doesn't really crack the equation.

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Ethel Barrymore Theatre. By Tom Stoppard. Dir. David Leveaux. With ensemble cast. 2hrs 50mins. One intermission.

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