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Indian Ink

Sendhil Ramamurthy and Lethia Nall in Indian Ink
(Photo © Cecilia Casella)
I've grown accustomed to the idea that Lincoln Center Theater has a monopoly on New York premieres of Tom Stoppard plays. So it was a bit of a surprise to hear that his Indian Ink, which bowed on the London stage in 1995, is just now debuting in NYC at the modest Off-Off Broadway Walkerspace downtown. This is a production by a fairly new South Asian theater company called Alter Ego Productions, and it's an excellent match of company and play.

Indian Ink concerns a British poet named Flora Crewe who, in 1930, goes to India for the good of her health. There, she enchants men as varied as an earnest Englishman who courts her and the Rajah himself. She befriends Indian portrait painter Nirad Das, who draws her while she writes poetry and teaches her about rasa, which he describes as the heightened feeling you must have "when you see a painting or hear music; it is the emotion which the artist must arouse in you." Meanwhile, in the 1980s, Eldon Pike, who is putting together a collection of Crewe's letters and might be considering a biography on her, drills the late poet's elderly sister, Eleanor, for information, taking a particular interest in the news that there may be a portrait of Flora lying around India somewhere. Once Eleanor is rid of the pesky Pike, she soon crosses paths with Das's son and the two find friendship in the shared past of their loved ones.

Indian Ink is about a lot of things. Plot-wise, it chiefly concerns that aforementioned portrait, but it is more generally about English-Indian relations in the waning days of Britain's Indian empire. Good as it is, the play is not one of Stoppard's best -- though it is one of his most accessible. Brilliant Stoppard works such as Arcadia and The Invention of Love can leave viewers awash in a sea of historical, literary, and linguistic references, barely able to keep their heads above water as many of the playwright's best quips whiz by the ears of those who have failed to do their homework. While Indian Ink, directed here by Ashok Sinha, also tackles historical and literary themes, it seems less dense than the others and moves along at a perfectly reasonable pace, even as the story jumps about in time. (Perhaps Stoppard reined himself in a bit to accommodate the limitations of radio, for which medium this play was originally written before subsequently being adapted for the stage, but there are echoes of those aforementioned works in Indian Ink. Arcadia, too, vacillates between past events and future researchers of those events, while Indian Ink includes a discussion of A.E. Houseman that foreshadows The Invention of Love.)

This is a fascinating, intelligent, and -- at three hours in length -- abundant play. The Alter Ego production is a little slow-going at the outset, as if the actors need to take a few moments before they start to truly inhabit Stoppard's characters and dialogue. Especially in the beginning, several of the jokes fall flat. But Stoppard's humor is often so precise and so understated that it requires the most skilled verbal gymnast to make it land, so one can hardly fault the mostly excellent cast for missing a few laughs.

That cast is headed by Lethia Nall (recently seen in the Public Theater's As You Like It) as Flora, and she is marvelous in the role -- witty, articulate, full of grit and spirit. The handsome Sendhil Ramamurthy is wonderful as Nirad Das and Deep Katdare is very good as his equally handsome son, Anish. Helen-Jean Arthur is a wry Eleanor, while Debargo Sanyal and Vikram Somaya are incredibly charming in comic roles. Unfortunately, Brian J. Coffey is too broad and superficial in his characterization of Eldon Pike.

The heart of Indian Ink is the relationship -- as both friends and fellow artists -- between Flora Crewe and Nirad Das. They cannot help but be affected by their respective nationalities, she the unwilling British oppressor and he the oppressed Indian who is also an Anglophile. But, even in a time and place full of political change and social upheaval, these two make unexpectedly wonderful impressions on each other: Flora is the one who finally teaches Nirad to be an Indian painter, and he helps bring out the rasa not only in her work but also in her self. With Indian Ink, Alter Ego and Tom Stoppard succeed in doing the same for us.