In the first act of Indian Ink, two artists explore the Indian concept of ”rasa,” which a character defines as ”what you must feel when you see a painting, or hear music; it is the emotion which the artist must arouse in you.” It’s a quality that permeates many aspects of Roundabout Theatre’s loving revival of Tom Stoppard’s (Arcadia) 1995 play, running through Nov. 30 at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre.
For a lengthy production that juggles heady themes and two timelines, Indian Ink remains remarkably accessible. One thread takes places in the 1930s, as poet Flora Crewe ventures to the sweltering climes of India for the health of her delicate lungs. There, she’s courted by Indian artist Nirad Das (Firdous Bamji), who offers to paint her portrait, as well as British Army officer David Durance (Lee Aaron Rosen). Interspersed are scenes taking place in the 1980s. Flora’s younger sister Eleanor (Rosemary Harris), now in her 70s, fields inquiries from Eldon Pike (Neal Huff), a doltish American academic who’s annotating an anthology of Flora’s letters, and Nirad’s son Anish, who is looking for answers about his father. Past productions have used a revolving stage to demarcate shifts between the two timelines, but director Carey Perloff simply allows the different eras to occupy the same space on the stage. The choice gives the past’s interaction with the present a refreshing and poignant immediacy.
There’s plenty of rasa to Romola Garai’s performance as Flora. She vigorously captures the dynamism of a great artist and the desperation of a woman whose body is failing her—in Stoppard’s script, her dialogue is littered with exclamation points, and Garai brings the punctuation to life. Bamji holds his own against Garai’s blazing presence, but there’s a lack of heat between them that becomes glaring over the play’s three-hour runtime. Roundabout’s production earns plenty of laughs—especially from Harris and Huff—and dutifully delivers on the script’s sometimes heavy-handed themes regarding colonialism and artistic freedom. But Indian Ink just isn’t one of Stoppard’s masterpieces. Like one of Nirad Das’ less transcendent portraits, the individual features are beautifully rendered—but rasa is missing from the whole. B+