Love, sex, literature, and the second law of thermodynamics collide in Arcadia, the jigsaw-like, century-hopping 1993 drama by brainy British playwright Tom Stoppard. That may not sound like the stuff of a rousing evening, but trust us: Director David Leveaux knows his way around a Stoppard play (he also helmed the Broadway revivals of The Real Thing and Jumpers). And the thermodynamics thing? Pretty minor when you get down to it.
In 1809, in a Derbyshire country house, the smarter-than-anyone-realizes 13-year-old Thomasina Coverly (Bel Powley) studies algebra, geometry, and Latin with her dreamy Trinity-educated tutor, Septimus Hodge (Tom Riley); she creates mathematical equations seemingly for fun and solves complex horticultural problems with one simple sketch, but she’s more concerned with learning to waltz before she turns 17 and with asking big questions like, ”Septimus, what is carnal embrace?” (His matter-of-fact, unflustered reply: ”Carnal embrace is the practice of throwing one’s arms around a side of beef.” Or, he continues, ”A shoulder of mutton, a haunch of venison well hugged, an embrace of grouse…”)
In the same country house, 200 years later, authors and academics devote their life’s work to decoding the happenings of yesteryear: Hannah Jarvis (Lia Williams) is digging through the estate’s garden for a book on hermits. In swoops Bernard Nightingale (Billy Crudup, the original Septimus on Broadway in 1995), who’s convinced that Lord Byron ate, slept, hunted, fornicated, and murdered a man on the grounds solely on the basis of a book found in the poet’s library.
If Arcadia weren’t a play, it could be a mystery. (Really. Stoppard did write an Oscar-winning Best Picture — Shakespeare in Love — so who’s to say he couldn’t pen a best-selling whodunit?) Every subplot is carefully laid, each tiny clue strategically placed like a bread crumb in a forest. And the things that sound the most trivial — like one of Thomasina’s bits about the stirring of jam into rice pudding — turn out to be precisely the opposite.
The acting could hardly be better. (While I’m loath to make direct comparisons, personally I preferred this cast to the original production’s.) Riley could have come right out of a Jane Austen novel; he’s witty, dashing, and completely crushable (a very important plot point). Williams is wonderfully prickly and has terrific chemistry with both Crudup and Raúl Esparza, who plays Valentine, the eccentric mathematician descendant of Thomasina. Crudup — who made his Broadway debut as Septimus, then won a 2007 Tony in Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia — appears to be acting in overdrive; perhaps he’s just excited to be in a Stoppard play without being stuck in the 19th century. But even with an over-the-top Crudup, it’s still a pretty fantastic evening. A-
(Tickets: Telecharge.com or 800-432-7250)