Since its 1993 debut at London's National Theatre, the prevailing word on Arcadia is that it's dense going. That's true enough, considering the cornucopia of ideas Stoppard spills over the stage -- involving unproved mathematical theorems, thermodynamics, the evolution of English gardens from tamed to unruly, the interpretation of history, and references to Ovid, Shakespeare, and Lord Byron -- but the play has many characteristics of a romantic comedy as well as including irresistible elements of a whodunnit. It's this heady blend of the ethereal and the abstruse that raises Stoppard's often hilarious script so far above the ordinary it seems to establish its own enchanting celestial plane.
Arcadia unfolds in two time periods. In the sequences set in 1809-1813, we are at Sidley Park, a British manor house where Thomasina Coverley (Bel Powley) the young, intellectually precocious daughter of the unseen Lord Croom and his wife Lady Croom (Margaret Colin) is being tutored by dashing Septimus Hodge (Tom Riley). Indeed, Septimus is so dashing he's caused duel-worthy marital problems with visiting would-be poet Ezra Chater (David Turner) and his never-seen easy-virtue wife.
In the present-day -- and in the same Sidley Park drawing-room (designed by Hildegard Bechtler) -- novelist Hannah Jarvis (Lia Williams) is in residence while researching her next book. But it's Hannah's previous book, about Lady Caroline Lamb, that has attracted the attention of the manipulative historian Bernard Nightingale (Billy Crudup), who is convinced that Chater was killed on the premises in a duel with Septimus' good friend, Lord Byron.
As Hannah and Bernard engage in verbal duels, manor descendants Valentine Coverly (Raul Esparza), a driven mathematician enamored of Hannah, Chloe (Grace Gummer), who develops a crush on Nightingale, and young Gus (Noah Robbins), who refuses to speak, circulate with their confused impulses.
As is typical of Stoppard, he has plenty he wants to get across, but perhaps the overriding message amid the crackling erudition fireworks is that settling on the truth about history is a scattershot, ultimately futile undertaking. In one of Stoppard's many provocative lines, Valentine says, "It's wanting to know that makes us matter," although the dramatist also implies we can never expect to know anything fully.
Even more thematically important is Stoppard's benevolent scrutiny of love's mechanics. Manifestations of love and lust romp through the two acts as if gazelles across a plain and culminate in a final over-lapping time-frame image -- not to be described here -- that's unfathomably beautiful.
Enhancing the play's power -- in addition to Gregory Gale's costumes that easily evoke disparate eras and Donald Holder's careful lighting -- are the seemingly effortless turns from Riley, Williams, Esparza, Gummer, Robbins (who also doubles as the 19th-century Augustus Coverley), Byron Jennings (as a crusading landscape architect) and Glenn Fleshler (as a conniving early 19th-century scion).
As for the minor missteps: Colin initially has accent trouble, but she's eventually right as rain; Crudup does a tad too much actorly showing-off; and the adept young Powley gives her lines great zing, but she isn't completely persuasive as a teenager.
Still, exiting patrons are bound to insist they've just witnessed their own Arcadia.
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