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  • Theater, Drama
  • West End Theatre (in the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew), Upper West Side
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
Shaun Taylor-Corbett and Caroline Grogan in Arcadia
Photograph: Courtesy Ashley GarrettArcadia

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Theater review by Regina Robbins 

Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia unfolds across two timelines. In the early 19th century, a Cambridge graduate works as a tutor on an English country estate, overseeing the education of a precocious young lady; nearly two centuries later, in the same house, three scholars seek to unravel mysteries left unsolved in the past. Among the subjects it surveys are mathematics, physics, history and music, and these interests are not merely academic; they are directly related to the play’s structure and plot. Real talk: This isn't a carefree evening at the theater. It is, however, a balm to the soul as much as a workout for the brain, and its current Off Broadway revival reminds us why this 1993 play about what’s lost to time has, so far, proven timeless.

Bedlam, a small but mighty ensemble company that reinvigorates the classics by ruthlessly reconstructing them, gets high marks for this production. As usual, director Eric Tucker lets the audience see the theatrical gears turning, staging the action on a set (by John McDermott) that erodes both the boundary between past and present and the one that separates performers from the audience. Yet he keeps the strands of the story from becoming a confusing tangle, which is no mean feat considering how much Stoppard puts on our plates: Regency Era sexual liaisons, modern-day professional rivalries (complicated by sex) and glorious questions about science, art and the meaning of life. The playwright has cultivated this territory throughout his career, but he shows us something different each time, thanks to his exquisite gifts for character and comedy. Even if we don’t follow every mathematical concept or catch every literary reference contained in the script, despite Stoppard’s considerable skill in deploying them, it’s still great fun to watch, say, a clever young man talk his way out of getting fired—or shot—after an indiscretion in a gazebo.

Arcadia | Photograph: Courtesy Ashley Garrett

Arcadia’s cast is a little less sharp than we’ve come to expect from Bedlam, as though the play’s equations hadn’t yet been fully worked out, but they still conjure plenty of theatrical alchemy. As the beleaguered tutor Septimus, Shaun Taylor-Corbett is charming and sympathetic, and Caroline Grogan shines as his young and naïve pupil Thomasina, who might be a scientific genius; Lisa Birnbaum also stands out as her frustrated mother. In the modern storyline, Zuzanna Szadkowski gives a winsome performance as Hannah, a literary scholar alternately drawn to and enraged by her sexist colleague (Elan Zafir, hilariously narcissistic) and pretending not to notice the romantic feelings that Valentine (Mike Labaddia), a prickly mathematician, harbors for her. Valentine is tasked with explaining—for Hannah’s benefit and ours—the complex problem that he is studying; Labaddia meets that challenge, and also crafts the production’s most complete performance.

Arcadia runs three hours but never overstays its welcome. Stoppard and Bedlam repay the audience’s investment of patience and attention with ample dividends: a profound exploration of the human condition augmented with playful comedy, poignant romance and bitter irony. When Thomasina laments the poetry and drama that went up in smoke when the Library of Alexandria was torched by the Romans, Septimus reassures her: “What we let fall will be picked up by those behind,” he says. “The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language.” It’s a comforting notion, and may even be true; all the same, let’s hope that Stoppard’s work never goes missing for long.

Arcadia. West End Theatre (Off Broadway). By Tom Stoppard. Directed by Eric Tucker. With Lisa Birnbaum, Caroline Grogan, Mike Labaddia, Zuzanna Szadkowski, Shaun Taylor-Corbett, Elan Zafir. Running time: 3 hrs. One intermission. 

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Arcadia | Photograph: Courtesy Ashley Garrett

Written by
Regina Robbins


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