Arcadia - I may not have understood all of it, but I enjoyed it

A couple of months ago, Michelle and I were able to obtain rush tickets to see Arcadia at the Barrymore Theater. They were all the way in the back, the last row of the mezz, but the theater is relatively small so we were still able to see what was going on. I, for one, was very excited to see the play because even though I had only a vague idea of what it was about, it was a Tom Stoppard play, and I've always wanted to see his work performed. A running joke between my sister and a few of our friends involving Tom Stoppard, Angela Lansbury, and the Tony Awards may also have played a role in my excitement to see a Tom Stoppard play, but that's a story for another time.

I'll admit, for the first 10-15 minutes of the show, I had no freaking clue what was going on. There seemed to be some sound problems at the beginning of the show, and combined with the British accents of the cast, I was confused and having trouble understanding what was being said. In his review for the New York Times, Ben Brantley wrote that many of the cast members had trouble with their diction and at times were guilty of swallowing their (admittedly long) lines, and that may have been a problem at this performance as well (for those of you interested in reading Mr. Brantley's review, it can be found here). However, as the show continued, I found myself adjusting to the accents, and actually hearing the words became less of a problem than understanding what in the world they were talking about.

It's difficult to to say what the play was about without giving too much away plot-wise. It's a very complex piece that features two generations of the same family, one in the 1800s and one in the present day. The show's website offers this concise summary:

April 1809, an elegant English country estate… a gifted pupil, proposes a startling theory well beyond her comprehension.  All around her, the adults, including her tutor, are preoccupied with secret desires, illicit passions and professional rivalries.
Two hundred years later, two academic adversaries are piecing together puzzling clues, curiously recalling those events of 1809 in their quest for an increasingly elusive truth.

Essentially, the plot boils down to this: In the past, Thomasina Coverly is being tutored by Septimus Hodge, a classmate of Shelley's who may or may not have been having an affair with the wife of another guest of the family. In the present, Valentine and Chloe Coverly are siblings who live on the same estate as their ancestor, Thomasina Coverly. Hannah Jarvis is a historical novelist whose latest piece is related to the hermitage on the property and the man who may have inhabited it (for those playing along at home, a hermitage is a small house or cabin located on the property that houses, you guessed it, a hermit). Bernard Nightingale is a historian who is attempting to publish an article expressing his belief that Byron Shelley murdered a man on the Coverly family estate back in the 1800s. Both Hannah and Bernard seek to publish their work, and so both are devoted to attempting to uncover the mystery surrounding Lord Byron's presence at the Coverly estate.

Despite the confusing and lofty subject matter - there is talk of mathematical theorems, discussions of literature and relativity and machines and multiple references to Lord Byron Shelley (despite being one of the central figures in the plot, he never appears onstage) - the story still feels accessible and grounded thanks to the cast. Billy Crudup is wonderfully pompous as Bernard Nightingale, and Raul Esparza is delightful as Valentine Coverly, a descendant of 18th century child-genius Thomasina Coverly (Bel Powley) who is himself a math whiz. The rest of the major players (Grace Gummer as Valentine's sister Chloe, Lia Williams as historian and novelist Hanna Jarvis) are fantastic as well. But to me the star of the show is Tom Riley, who plays Septimus Hodge, Thomasina's tutor and a contemporary of Lord Byron. In his Broadway debut, Mr. Riley's Septimus is both bright and dashing, imparting knowledge to Thomasina while simultaneously recognizing that her intellect exceeds his own. The relationship between Septimus and Thomasina, and the conclusion that their story reaches at the end of the show, is one of the most emotionally resonant aspects of the play. I was surprised that Mr. Riley was overlooked for a Tony nomination for his work.

Mr. Stoppard is known for his verbose and lengthy plays, and Arcadia is no exception. The dialogue is alternately witty and serious, and often moves at breakneck speed. There is unrequited romance in both the past and the present, and subtle flirtations throughout. As the play switches back and forth between the two time periods, the audience begins to understand that the present's conception of the events of the past is incorrect, with each character in the present having different (partially correct and partially incorrect) theories of the past. For the majority of the play, the past and the present stay separate through the use of lighting and transitions, but at the end of the play, the two come together as their stories play out simultaneously. It is slightly disconcerting seeing the characters of the past and present onstage at the same time, particularly because the young boy, played by Noah Robbins, is in both the past and the present. The play also ends on what I thought to be a somewhat odd note, but perhaps there was some symbolism or deeper meaning that I did not catch.

At its heart, Arcadia seems to be about the human quest for knowledge. The characters in the show demonstrate that even though we may be completely incorrect in our theories about the past, and the answers we find to our questions may be faulty, it is the fact that we strove to find those answers in the first place that matters. It does not matter if our area of passion is words or numbers, logic or fantasy - what matters is our thirst for knowledge and understanding. In that regard, Arcadia speaks to the detective in all of us, that part of us that always wants to know more. We may not understand the answers we find; in fact, we may not even find them at all. But as long as we continue to question, to seek truth and understanding of the world around us, we will continue to be human.


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