If everything a great playwright wrote were top-drawer, the drawer probably wouldn’t open. That’s one reason the Roundabout’s fine mounting of Indian Ink — which is second-tier Tom Stoppard but excellent by almost any other standard — is so welcome. It allows us to see more deeply into the interior of his best works, which get further with many of the same techniques and hide them better.
The play also has merits of its own, of course, so it’s especially odd that it has barely been seen in New York before now. (A small Off–Off Broadway production ran downtown for three weeks in 2003.) Originally written as In the Native State for radio in 1991 and then translated to the stage in 1995, it has been overshadowed by the greatness of its near contemporaries Arcadia (1993) and The Invention of Love (1997), both of which share its structure of twinned time periods. In the case of Indian Ink, the eras are close enough to touch, or nearly. The main story is set in 1930, in pre-independence India, where Flora Crewe, a 35-year-old bright young thing whose quasi-explicit poetry causes scandals at home in England, has come for her health. (She has tuberculosis.) In return for lecturing on “Literary Life in London” to the Anglomaniac Indian elites, who are thrilled with her reports of H.G. Wells’s preferred pen and of dumping drinks on critics, she is put up at a former post house in Jammapur. There she works on a poem whose very subject — the intense heat — defeats her efforts. Instead, she mostly writes letters to her sister Nell back in London while a local artist, Nirad Das, paints her portrait on the veranda. Soon the self-consciously unconventional daughter of privilege is drawing the self-consciously conventional son of subjugation into closer orbit:
FLORA: You know, you are the first man to paint my toenails.
DAS: Actually, I am occupied in the folds of your skirt.
FLORA: Ah. In that you are not the first.
The portrait that links these two seekers also links the two time periods. References to it in Crewe’s letters home (and to at least two other artworks, including a Modigliani nude) excite a buffoonish mid-1980s academic named Eldon Pike to visit Nell — now a formidable widow in her 70s called Mrs. Eleanor Swan. Disdainful of his scholarly pretensions and also a bit mischievous, she sends him on a wild goose chase. A second visitor, Anish Das, the son of Nirad Das and now a painter himself, gets a better reception. In a series of deliciously written scenes, both warm and tart, she and Anish become friends without ever agreeing on an interpretation of the past. Were Flora and Nirad lovers? (We know, but they don’t.) Did England civilize India, or vice versa? In any case, one of Stoppard’s points is that each person’s reality is someone else’s distortion. The play thus works like a game of Hot Potato, with the bag of misprision being passed round and round the circle of characters, from one decade to the other and back, until it is left in the hands of the loser: the poor academic. He’s a straw man and, naturally, an American.
There’s no denying the astonishing craft of the individual scenes, the masterly way Stoppard plays with echoes and reversals, tossing themes this way and that like pizza dough. The dialogue, too, is deeply entertaining — sexy or funny, and often both, as the case requires. And if everyone talks beautifully regardless of background, it makes some of the lumps of historical background go down more easily. But Stoppard’s uncharity toward Pike is a tip-off to the play’s underlying problems. Eventually everyone must get hammered into place in the abstract superstructure, which causes a problem of diminishing returns. By the middle of the second act, the characters are far more interested in creating or solving the mystery of the portraits than the audience can reasonably be. The scenes set in the 1980s, particularly the biographer’s retracing of Flora’s steps in India, become distractions from the story of the people we’ve come to care about. Eventually the play — like Pike’s Collected Letters of Flora Crewe, in which “there are pages where Flora can hardly get a word in sideways” — starts to disappear among the theatrical equivalent of footnotes.
If the various elements and time periods never satisfactorily emulsify despite Stoppard’s tireless whisking, the problem may stem from the play’s origin as a radio drama. Unlike Arcadia and The Invention of Love, Indian Ink is about a subject — portraiture — that, paradoxically, may be easier to render in a nonvisual medium than it is onstage. In any case, director Carey Perloff’s physical production (with awkward sets by Neil Patel) feels underdeveloped. Happily, the performances she gets from the principal cast are not. Romola Garai, best known for Emma and Atonement, makes a heartbreaking Flora, painfully alive to the provocations that make her bold and to the damages that make her regret it. She even makes a good case for Flora’s poem about the heat — not a Stoppard high point, unless he meant to demonstrate her mediocrity. And Firdous Bamji as her painter brings the audience deep into the divided soul of an Indian in thrall (in both senses) to the English. In an especially thrilling moment, he finally yields to Flora’s pressure to be “less Indian,” or “more Indian,” “or at any rate Indian, not Englished-up and all over me like a Labrador.” At this command, his voice completely changes and the necessity of a romance between them begins to emerge from the characters instead of just the playwright.
I am leaving to last Rosemary Harris, who at 87 has no trouble playing a younger woman. Her scenes with the excellent Bhavesh Patel as Anish are acting classes, or would be if you could see any acting. Granted, she spent part of her own youth in India, but the simple glow of reality she exudes in this as in every role she plays is not nature. It’s something that, as Indian Ink demonstrates, is far more satisfying, at least when it works. It’s brilliant artifice.
Indian Ink is at the Laura Pels Theatre through November 30.