By Tom Stoppard
Directed by Cheryl Faraone
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
“I’m the kind of person who embarks on an endless leapfrog down the great moral issues. I put a position, rebut it, refute the rebuttal, and rebut the refutation. Forever. Endlessly.” – Tom Stoppard in an Interview with Mel Gussow about “The Real Inspector Hound,” “New York Times,” April 26, 1972
Apparently, Tom Stoppard practices what he preaches. The type of iteration he alludes to in the above-mentioned interview is precisely the iteration Thomasina Coverly (Caitlin Duffy) is deconstructing at Sidley Park in Derbyshire, the nineteenth century setting in Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia,” the complex but quite accessible play currently enjoying a revival by PTP/NYC at Atlantic Stage 2 in repertory with Howard Barker’s “Pity of History.” And the same mathematical process Valentine Coverly is attempting to decipher in the same setting in the twentieth century.
While confounding her tutor Septimis Hodge (Andrew William Smith), Thomasina also draws a diagram of heat exchange in her lesson book suggesting that heat could not “work backwards.” The pre-pubescent Thomasina eventually opines that the universe must at some point in the future wind down, grow cold, and die. No one in the present country house can understand how Thomasina is able to navigate algorithms with such alacrity prior to the invention of the computer.
These academic inquiries ricochet off the other events at Sidley Park that tend to have more to do with the “carnal embrace” Thomasina queries Septimus about at the play’s beginning. In both centuries, the characters “embrace the flesh” (the carnal embrace) – conform to their hubris-filled humanity – in rapid fire “Seven Deadly Sins” fashion. Envy, gluttony, greed, lust, pride, sloth, and wrath abide and the greatest of them at Sidley Park is pride.
“Arcadia’s” plot is complex, full of bi-century twists and turns (culminating is a splendid appearance of both centuries on Mark Evancho’s spare but highly effective set), and replete with Stoppard’s signature grappling with words and language. One could parse Richard Noakes’s (played with the perfect commitment to Romanticism by Sebastian LaPointe) watercolor plans for Lady Croom’s (played with a conspiring regal charm by Megan Byrne) expansive garden, or whether – as Bernard Nightingale (played with a delightful and playful arrogance by Alex Draper) posits – Lord Byron shot poet Ezra Chater (played with a bristling naiveite and disregard by Jonathan Tindle), or whether Hannah Jarvis’s (Stephanie Janssen) research on who the hermit is in Noakes’s plans is worthwhile. But, as intriguing as these subplots are, it is not these machinations across the centuries that ultimately empower “Arcadia.”
That is what makes Cheryl Faraone’s staging of “Arcadia” so successful. She has managed to tap deeply into the playfulness of Stoppard’s script. Audience members should not try too hard to “figure out” what Stoppard has already researched and written. Focus, instead, needs to be placed on the “game” of the play itself, its dance, its waltz, its fun. And Cheryl Faraone has understood that game and its rules with consummate insight and skill. It is always a pleasure to witness her vision take shape on the stage.
What makes this shift in focus possible is Professor Faraone’s PTP/NYC cast which she directs with a high dose of care with just the right splash of whimsy. Stephanie Janssen’s Hannah makes her character’s commitments believable. ‘‘It’s wanting to know that makes us matter,’’ she stresses to Valentine, ‘‘Otherwise we’re going out the way we came in.” Jackson Prince’s Valentine Coverly exposes his admission to the existence of genius, a human impulse that surpasses science, with a palpable vulnerability. The remainder of the ensemble cast is equally brilliant and engaged in the conflicts of their complex characters.
Caitlin Duffy’s Thomasina and Andrew William Smith’s Septimus grapple with the dimensions of loss with extraordinary sensitivity. At one point, Thomasina laments the loss of Alexandria’s historic library: Septimus reassures her, “You should no more grieve for the rest [of the lost Greek tragedies] than for a buckle lost from your first shoe, or for your lesson book which will be lost when you are old. We shed as we pick up, like travelers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind.’’ Nothing is ever really lost.
The recent socio-political events in the United States and England – as well as in other global “hot spots” – have precipitated the need for the kind of discourse about “the great moral issues” provided in Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia.” Whether we will be able to iterate what has been left behind remains to be seen. We have our own Arcadia to flesh out.