We New Yorkers take great pride in having so many cultural activities at hand, and truth to tell, thanks to an ever-growing interest in the arts throughout America, New York isn’t all that unique anymore. Some of our country’s best theater performances take place in other places, and certainly New York has its competition when it comes to “serious” theater.
Still, we do have some special activities, brought about – I would guess – because there is a such critical mass in the area. We have lots of people who will spend money to see a classic or less-popular play, and the current revival of Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia” is a good case in point.
Returning to Broadway after 16 years or so, this wonderful story connecting modern England to what one commentator refers to as “pseudopastoral” England provides a delightful intellectual journey over the years. Always stimulating, the play tends to keep listeners either on the edge of their seats (so they won’t miss a single reference) or they leave at the intermission. There doesn’t seem to be any “in-between” with respect to Stoppard’s verbiage, and you can see why. He loves words, and when I read a rather tiresome review of this revival a few months back, my first reaction was “This critic doesn’t like language – he doesn’t like words.” (A pretty sad commentary, in fact, about someone who makes his living as a writer.)
The play is great fun, ostensibly about life in 1803 when the landed gentry were changing their landscaped gardens from (their version of) “classical” to something more rustic (and equally artificial), a sort of ersatz “gothic” or “nature”-like form. There is even reference to the great English landscape designer Humphry Repton, complete with a dummied-up prop representing the “before-and-after” book he showed to clients, with pop-up type cutouts demonstrating how the gardens would look when transformed by himself and his workers, except that the cutouts are backwards from the Repton books. (Or, as described by Stoppard in the script: “The sketch book is the work of Mr. Noakes, who is obviously an admirer of Humphry Repton’s ‘Red Books.’ The pages, drawn in watercolours, show ‘before’ and ‘after’ views of the landscape, and the pages are cunningly cut to allow the latter to be superimposed over portions of the former, though Repton did it the other way round.”)
The early 19th-century scenes in the great house are cleverly contrasted with a second tale – taking place in the same rooms – set in the present, and much of the fun comes from watching the interplay of the two periods of time (and their people), plus trying to figure out the certain mysteries that are sneaked into the dialog.
No matter. Stoppard’s ability to combine good story-telling with magnificent word-play leads to a charming evening, full of fun and puns and silly (and sometimes very serious) references. I always feel like I have had a wonderful time of it whenever I leave one of Stoppard’s plays. I’ve been stretched, so to speak, and that was certainly the case with this revival of “Arcadia.” I saw the play first at London’s famous old Theatre Royal Haymarket back in 1993, the year it opened. It had a wonderful cast, and I loved Felicity Kendal as the leading actress and Rufus Sewell as the young tutor, a role Billy Crudup made famous when he made his Broadway debut in the part. I saw Crudup then, when I saw the play again in New York, and I was delighted to see him back in this revival. This time, thought, he is in a role – the leading man (or one of them) – that is as different as light from day from his role as Septimus Hodge, the tutor.
Sadly, as is often the case with revivals of well-established works, this version of “Arcadia” is a limited run, closing at the end of June. Will I try to go again, for another night of intellectual stimulation and pleasure? We’ll see.