Tom Stoppard's dense but dazzling 1993 work uses a dual-track narrative to interrogate both the limitations and the limitlessness of the sometimes competing disciplines of the humanities—philosophy, poetry, literature, art—and science and mathematics. Stuck somewhere in the middle is the fallibility of history, with the ever unfathomable variables of sex and romance mucking up the works. Stoppard's heady but endlessly moving play, which premiered in London the year after Writers Theatre made its own debut in the back of a North Shore bookstore, is spot-on as the first production in the company's new (and, it should be said, stunningly gorgeous) home.
The playwright hops effortlessly back and forth between two time periods in the same room of an English country estate. In 1809 Sidley Park, unrecognized maths prodigy Thomasina Coverly (Elizabeth Stenholt) takes cues both scholarly and sensual from her tutor, Septimus Hodge (Greg Matthew Anderson), while more trivial figures flit about them. In the modern day, rival researchers Hannah Jarvis (Kate Fry) and Bernard Nightingale (Scott Parkinson) hunt for details of an anecdotal hermit who lived on the grounds and a long-lost visit by Lord Byron, both of them missing the trees for the forest.
The Writers Theatre cast, in an even-keeled staging by artistic director Michael Halberstam that's expertly tuned to the dimensions of the new mainstage, hits every mark. Stoppard's script is so layered with academic details that it could come across as abstruse in the wrong hands. But Halberstam's crackerjack collection of actors lands every reference as if debates about poetry versus physics, in the 19th century or now, are as natural and vital as current politics. Up-and-coming cast members like Stenholt, Christopher Sheard and Callie Johnson prove just as compelling as stalwarts Parkinson, Fry and Anderson, making this the ideal production of what might be Stoppard's best play.
Writers Theatre. By Tom Stoppard. Directed by Michael Halberstam. With ensemble cast. Running time: 3hrs; one intermission.