David Leveaux’s exquisite if ever-so-slightly muted revival of Arcadia – Tom Stoppard’s 1993 masterpiece about sex, literature, epistemology, sex, landscaping, sex, the second law of thermodynamics, and the tantalizingly unrequited romance between mind and body – both charms and challenges its audience. And also, one senses, its cast. The production doesn’t have the effortlessness or the smolder of Leveaux’s 2000 remount of Stoppard’s The Real Thing, but then Arcadia is a far more ambitious, far more hardworking piece of work. It requires careful excavation in very fine light, and Leaveaux furnishes both, but anyone waiting for a “Eureka!” moment will be waiting in vain.
Stoppard and Leveaux seem equally skeptical about such moments. They’re dedicated to the long view of life, love, and knowledge, and so is Arcadia. In it, suspense, sexual tension and an almost geological patience are all one: As the humans on stage scurry about with their little seductions and discoveries, the great tectonic mass of the play’s foundational intellect sits back and watches it all unfold.
And in two timelines, no less. Arcadia cross-threads the early nineteenth century with the present day, in the same English country manor. In both periods, the grounds are under construction — first from tidy Enlightenment topiary to picturesque “everything-but-vampires” Gothic, then back again, via archaeology and reclamation. And great discoveries are in the offing both then and now: In 1809, Septimus Hodge (Tom Riley) is tutoring the young heiress Thomasina Coverly (Bel Powley), and slowly, ever-so-slowly, coming to realize she’s a naive genius. (She intuits the eventual heat-death of the universe — and a rebuttal to Newton, a century ahead of its time — from her rice pudding, noting, “You cannot stir things apart.”) Meanwhile, in the present-day, Bernard Nightingale (Billy Crudup), a caddish academic, tries to team up with his preposterously buttoned-up rival, Hannah Jarvis (Lia Williams), to prove that Lord Byron killed a minor poet (David Turner) in a duel on the house grounds.
The story comes down to Byron versus science, the Enlightenment versus the Romantics, pure reason versus sheer randomness — and the possibility that the dialectic itself is nothing more than an optical illusion. If the elusive human equation refuses to balance, “it’s all because of sex,” says Chloe (the winning Grace Gummer), the present-day Coverly heiress who makes a sport of throwing herself at Bernard. “The universe is deterministic all right, just like Newton said, I mean it’s trying to be, but the only thing going wrong is people fancying people who aren’t supposed to be in that part of the plan.”
Sex hangs over Arcadia like a fine English fog, and personally, I’d have preferred it even thicker. Nothing sets off Stoppard’s crystalline intellect like a nice, rude intrusion of carnality and folly. But Leveaux has directed his cast members to turn inward, and perhaps that’s ultimately the better choice. I admit to being a little flummoxed by Crudup’s Bernard; he’s playing a character more or less alien to American audiences, the flibbertigibbet rake, and he bridges the gap with doses of downcast American irony and tics that sometimes come close to clowning. But his approach won me over by Act Two, when Bernard’s limitations as a person and a character come into fuller view. Ditto Williams’ chilly Hannah and Powley’s avid child-prodigy Thomasina — they seem immovable in their typologies until late in the play, when the clockwork clicks into place.
Quietly brilliant throughout is the restrained Raul Esparza, playing Valentine, the dilettante mathematician and Coverly scion who uncovers Thomasina’s genius using modern iterative algorithms. His subdued, never-optimized passion for Hannah burns like a steady pilot light in the play’s soul, which is a melancholy one, though pleasingly so. Seldom has a more romantic finale been more rationally, stealthily staged–the impact sneaks up on you. “This is not science,” Septimus says, erroneously, of young Thomasina’s theories. “This is storytelling.” And because it’s Stoppard, it’s both, of course. The equation always balances, even — perhaps especially — when the people living it can’t.