Before Tom Stoppard wrote his first play, Arcadia, he had become famous for a series of literary extravaganzas with only factitious theatrical life. Indigestible mixtures of Philosophy 101 lecture and lowbrow sketch comedy, they were based on gimmickry and show-offy wordplay to a degree that makes them untenable in revival. You couldn’t find a more painful example than Jumpers (1972), in which Stoppard invites us to empathize with an absentminded professor who, though an idiot blind to reality, is also apparently the last sincere God-fearing person in an England of rad-lib scoundrels. Between the weary recycled jokes (“My wife’s in bed with the doctor”) and the pious floods of donnish pontificating, it’s far easier to lose patience than to pay attention. David Leveaux’s production, on a perpetually circling set, only underscores Stoppard’s restless determination to impress the audience at all costs, and a final stake is driven through the evening’s heart by Simon Russell Beale’s performance in the lead role. Beale may not be the worst actor alive, but he’s surely the most relentlessly self-congratulatory, his pursed lips and raised eyebrows announcing, “How adorable I am!” at every key moment. He shouldn’t be on the stage—he’s out of place anywhere but in a circle of mirrors.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 20, 2004