Information, in a play, can come in all shapes and sizes, but if you held a competition for the contemporary playwright most eager to supply it, Tom Stoppard would probably finish first, either alone or in a dead heat with John Guare. Some Stoppard plays are packed so thickly with information that they leave virtually no space for drama, giving them a curiously inert quality beneath the ceaseless stream of data. Arcadia (Barrymore Theatre), which I sometimes think of as Stoppard’s only real play, is the great exception. Though its unremitting flood of external facts, both real and imaginary, is denser, if anything, than in most Stoppard works, it also offers emotional information, often unspoken, that give it a dramatic shape and forward movement exceptional for this writer, generally so much more interested in concepts than in events.
In Arcadia, things actually happen, and happen because of the characters’ feelings toward one another. Where a work like The Coast of Utopia or The Invention of Love can seem, too often, like an illustrated classroom lecture, through which a perfunctory and unresolved narrative flickers for no particular reason, Arcadia has a heart. One significant detail indicates its unusual degree of authorial involvement: Arcadia’s heroine, an early-19th-century adolescent with a far-seeing, inquisitive spirit and a genius aptitude for mathematics, is named Thomasina—the female equivalent of Tom.
Regrettably, you’ll get virtually no sense of either Thomasina’s prophetic genius or her burgeoning adolescent urges from Bel Powley’s insistently one-note performance. Powley is much too busy indicating 13-year-old girlishness, even after Thomasina has aged several years, to bother about such matters as how a well-bred young girl of the Regency would or wouldn’t have conveyed a growing interest in algebraic speculation on the one hand and her tutor’s sexual magnetism on the other.
Powley’s often incomprehensible squeak functions as a discordant keynote to David Leveaux’s misguided revival, which heedlessly ignores most of the subtextual information so lovingly layered under Stoppard’s words, instead preferring to concentrate, with jabbering anxiety, on the cerebral data that makes up the play’s surface. The actors all appear locked manically inside themselves, each eagerly awaiting his or her turn to rattle off a disquisition at top speed, taking care to give every subordinate clause the precise shading for its literal sense, never admitting for an instant that characters in plays, even Stoppard plays, have desires, and say things to convey those desires to others, however inexplicitly.
Left without any such directional signals, the audience inevitably has trouble grasping what the characters say: Complaints of inaudibility and incomprehensibility, duly noted by reviewers and on theater message boards, have been constant at Arcadia. There are indeed some diction problems, starting with Powley’s, and the script is a tough one to absorb in any encounter, but the chief obstacle to comprehension is Leveaux’s direction, which never gives anyone onstage the least glimmer of a reason for saying anything to anyone else. That’s a guaranteed way to reduce the event to the level of an illustrated lecture, or one of those ultra-clever Stoppard plays that always disappoint because they lack the emotional depth and passion of Arcadia.
Despite the production’s disconnection, enough Stoppardian substance comes through to convey the play’s richness. Set simultaneously in the Regency and our own time, it graphs Thomasina’s intellectual and sexual awakening, stimulated by her tutor, Septimus Hodge (Tom Riley), while showing how two modern researchers, one opportunistic (Billy Crudup) and one devoted (Lia Williams), just miss grasping her story, thrown off its trail by their crossed-wire responses to each other and to the heirs of her family’s manor, Valentine (Raúl Esparza) and Chloë (Grace Gummer). Misunderstandings abound, echoing across the centuries; human feeling, the wild card that disrupts rational procedure, guarantees the entropic end of our species and our planet. The modern love affairs all go unconsummated; whether Thomasina’s death by fire is or isn’t brought about by a sexual consummation, we never learn. Some information is unrecapturable.
Riley’s charm and Gummer’s sweetness give flashes of what a better production might convey; Crudup, making the would-be celebrity critic smirkily self-aware, captures some hints of its comic potential. But the evening is arid, despite the play’s green freshness.