Essie Davis (background) andSimon Russell Beale in Jumpers(Photo © Hugo Glendinning)
Essie Davis (background) and
Simon Russell Beale in Jumpers
(Photo © Hugo Glendinning)
Simon Russell Beale is a stocky man of medium height who looks as if he'd be ideal casting for Mr. Magoo's better-looking younger brother. You wouldn't tag him as instantly right in almost any other role, yet it turns out he can play anything from Hamlet to Sir Foppington Flutter in The Man of Mode to Doctor Pangloss in Candide to Uncle Vanya to Iago. He not only can, he has -- and with a persuasion that's put him at the top of London's leading-man heap. The alchemy by which he achieves his transitions is elusive; Beale seems to emit a silent signal that says, "I am this character and I challenge you to think otherwise."

Actually, the reason he's so astonishing in the revival of Tom Stoppard's Jumpers is more readily apparent: He's blatantly having a great time. As moral philosopher George Moore, who's preparing a lecture on the meaning of goodness while his mentally disturbed actress wife harbors a corpse in her bedroom, Beale rules the stage with urgent benevolence. The lightning-tongued George is getting ready to speak before a crowd; Beale seizes the opportunity to play the audience like a pliant Stradivarius, and the wily director David Leveaux is obviously all for it. Throughout Stoppard's two acts, Beale darts from one side of the stage to the other, flashing his eyes and drawing his mouth into funny moues. During his extended disquisitions, he does everything but wink.

Though mercurial, he's solidly committed to George and his weighty topics, which swerve from the origin of the universe and the history of philosophy to St. Thomas Aquinas's five proofs of God's existence and Zeno's Paradox. (Vicki Mortimer's set puts the Moore apartment on a turntable in the middle of a three-walled view of the cosmos, just to make patrons mindful of the intimidating infinite.) Increasingly distracted by wife Dorothy (Essie Davis) and her dalliance with George's lubricious vice chancellor, Archie Jumper (Nicky Henson), not to mention by thoughts of how to get rid of that pesky dead body, George never completely stops dilating on his daunting subject matter.

Wanna know how seductive Beale is? So seductive that he almost has the audience believing he's genially and generously expending his boundless energies in a play that has something substantive to say. When he first appears, after Dorothy fails to entertain guests at a party and just before a philosopher-acrobat named McFee is shot -- Beale is phoning the police to report the party commotion. Asked his name, he says "Wittgenstein," and that's Stoppard's first cue to the frivolous nature of his gabby enterprise. Like many British wits of the last 50 years, he's been intrigued by the intellectual custard pies that Ludwig Wittgenstein threw at language and meaning during his Cambridge years. Stoppard the Playful means to put his spin on Wittgenstein's suppositions. The name George Moore is another of Stoppard's hints: Another George Moore (d. 1958) ruminated in "Principia Ethica," for example, over quandaries similar to those that worry the play's George.

In Jumpers, Stoppard indulges in literal and verbal gymnastics to obfuscate meaning while teasing it, and he has a grand time in laying out his discursive, rambling plot. This George Moore is dictating his speech to a mum secretary (Eliza Lumley) as Dorothy confines herself in the bedroom, for a while watching two English astronauts walk on the moon. George and Dorothy seem to have affection for each other but she's been withholding his conjugal rights (though she hasn't been withholding her sexual favors from Archie). After the three of them exchange frenzied views for a bit, a detective calling himself Bones (Nicholas Woodeson) arrives on an anonymous tip that there's been a shooting on the premises. Bones also succumbs to Dorothy's charms -- who wouldn't as she slips in and out of Nicky Gillibrand's gorgeous, often feathery frocks? Eventually, there's a trial or a hearing -- it's a dream -- during which Lord Greystoke (Tarzan to you) testifies. Bones, garbed as the Archbishop of Canterbury, also materializes. When Stoppard feels that he has legerdemained enough, he abruptly closes his bag of tricks.

Anyone hoping for further clarification of Jumpers here is in for a disappointment. There's plenty of talk about a tortoise and a hare along with some chat about a prime mover that seems deliberately highfalutin when contrasted to the shenanigans involving the late tumbling philosopher. Maybe Stoppard's suggesting that philosophers do little more than mental cartwheels. Maybe the McFee murder remains an unsolved mystery at play's end because Stoppard believes that all grand mysteries remain unsolved. Maybe Dorothy attempts to get through a chorus of "Shine On Harvest Moon" because Stoppard believes that popular culture shrinks the import of anything meaningful. (Sound designer John Leonard programs many a moon song throughout, including Bart Howard's "Fly Me to the Moon" and Jimmy Webb's stunning "The Moon's a Harsh Mistress," which may be a distillation of Stoppard's message.) According to the press materials, the presence of Tarzan and the Archbishop of Canterbury also have to do with something or other.

Essie Davis and Simon Russell Bealein Jumpers(Photo © Hugo Glendinning)
Essie Davis and Simon Russell Beale
in Jumpers
(Photo © Hugo Glendinning)
But maybe the reality of Jumpers is that Stoppard had himself a tempting set-up and took it as far as he could -- which, considering his talent for wisecracks, puns, and glib erudition, is far indeed. He has enough steam to get through the first act but he doesn't know what to do in the second act: He brings the jumpers back and dresses Bones up a couple times, and the turntable revolves some more. He summons the dream, which is presided over by a retainer called Crouch (John Rogan), but the sequence is both overwrought and underwritten; it also shifts focus away from George, who sits downstage with his back to the audience. This has the effect of undermining George as a character and, more's the pity, of working against Beale's performance as George. Ultimately, he's a one-note figure. It's a good note and Beale does makes a resounding chord of it, but it's still one note.

Although Jumpers remains George's play, Dorothy has plenty to do, including swinging on a moon; Essie Davis gets to flash more emotions than Beale and also gets to flash a beautiful body. Nicky Henson, who has described himself with the British term "jobbing actor," is one of the best serving in that capacity; strutting in a loud pin-stripe suit, he's just the right grade of unctuous. Nicholas Woodeson is a likeable cop and John Rogan a man of jolly crochets. Eliza Lumley, who spends most of her time taking dictation, is at one point seen doing a striptease on an Evelyn Nesbit swing. And then there are the jumpers, whom Jim Carnahan has helped cast with tongue in cheek; they're agile but not necessarily slim. In other words, they look as if they really could be philosophers hitting the mats in their spare time.

In the early part of his career, Stoppard was accused by detractors as being all head and little heart. He's put that charge to rest in recent years with Arcadia, The Invention of Love, and Coast of Utopia (which was already seen in London and is due at Lincoln Center), but Jumpers is a reminder that the initial detractors had a point.