Sixteen years after it premiered on Broadway, Arcadia, Tom Stoppard's masterpiece about the quest for knowledge, understanding, glory and love, is just as complexly brilliant as it was in its first go-round. David Leveaux's revival eloquently captures the magic and majesty of this play of passions and ideas. Not every performance sparkles, but Billy Crudup and Lia Williams as dueling academics, and Brits Tom Riley and Bel Powley as a 19th-century tutor and his pupil, heighten the already lustrous material.
All the action takes place in the same room of a country estate in Derbyshire, England, in 1809 and the present. In the 19th century, Septimus Hodge (Riley) tries to educate 13-year-old Thomasina Coverly (Powley), an undiscovered genius, while matters more practical unfold around them. The cuckolded husband of his paramour challenges him to a duel, while Septimus's school chum Lord Byron (an offstage character) charms Thomasina's mother, who's all aflutter over makeover plans for her garden that include the addition of a hermitage.
These seemingly insignificant events take on vital importance in the present day, when scholar Hannah Jarvis (Williams) is ensconced on the premises to try to identify the mysterious hermit who lived on the estate. Enter Bernard Nightingale (Crudup), a sneaky colleague looking for evidence that proves his theory that Lord Byron killed the husband of his lover in a duel fought on the estate in 1809.
It's hard to resist the urge to fill a review of Arcadia with an assortment of Stoppard's delectable musings, such as Septimusís assurance that knowledge will keep regenerating: "We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind"; or Hannah's acceptance of the limitations of knowledge: "Better to struggle on knowing that failure is final."
Yet Arcadia never becomes an academic exercise, thanks to the humanity of Stoppard's and Leveaux's visions. Crudup, who was a terrific Septimus in the original Broadway production, makes the boldest acting choice of anyone in the ensemble by playing Nightingale as a mannered, unctuous fame-seeker, and it's effective. So is Raul Esparza, as a scientist with a fondness for Hannah, who delivers some of the play's most expressive lines, such as when he says simply, "Itís the best possible time to be alive." Arcadia won't leave you doubting.
By Diane Snyder
Visit the Site
Margaret Colin, Billy Crudup, Raul Esparza, Glenn Fleshler, Grace Gummer, Edward James Hyland, Byron Jennings, Bel Powley, Tom Riley Noah Robbins, David Turner, Lia Williams
Ethel Barrymore Theatre
234 West 47th Street
New York, NY 10036