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Indian Ink

Tom Stoppard's intelligent and sensitive play about art and love in the British Raj gets a major revival.

Rosemary Harris and Bhavesh Patel in Tom Stoppard's Indian Ink, directed by Carey Perloff, at Roundabout Theatre Company's Laura Pels Theatre.
(© Joan Marcus)

You might be hesitant to commit to a three-hour play about the lost legacy of a Rajathani painter and his relationship with an English poet in 1930s India, but you should really set those misgivings aside. Tom Stoppard's Indian Ink is an equal marriage of intelligence and humanity, the type that comes along too infrequently and rarely feels like three hours. Roundabout Theatre Company is now presenting a high-quality revival at the Laura Pels Theatre. (The play made its New York premiere 11 years ago with the now-defunct Alter Ego Productions.) You'll definitely not want to miss it this time around.

The story follows the 1930 journey of Flora Crewe (Romola Garai), an English poet with a scandalous reputation, who travels to the fictional princely state of Jummapur, India, to regain her health. There she meets the artist Nirad Das (Firdous Bamji), who paints a portrait of her as she composes her poems. Flash forward to 1983 England, where Crewe scholar Eldon Pike (Neal Huff) presses the late poet's sister, Eleanor Swan (Rosemary Harris), for information on Flora's time in India. Eleanor supplies him with a huge collection of letters and shows him the painting, by then attributed only to an "unknown Indian artist." Pike sets out on a quest to discover this artist, believing that he or his descendants might still be living in Jummapur.

Pike never suspects that the answers he desperately seeks are actually closer to where he started his journey. Speaking to a visiting Anish Das (Bhavesh Patel) of his father Nirad's imprisonment following an Empire Day protest, Mrs. Swan declares, "He was put in prison for his actions, not his opinions, Mr. Das, and obviously deserved what he got. Will you have a slice of cake?" Armed with a pastry server and an inscrutable smile, Harris expertly navigates through such awkwardly confrontational British niceties as if they were second nature.

The 18-person cast abounds with great performances: Bamji, in particular, brings a nervous energy to Das, the Indian nationalist painter who also has an undying love of British literature. Every expressive nod of his head betrays that which his polite and formal diction seeks to conceal. Playing his son, Patel gives a realistic portrayal of a man who has embraced a British identity, not in spite of his father's values, but in honor of them. In the characters of Das and son, Stoppard (who lived in British India as a child after fleeing the Japanese invasion of Singapore) deftly articulates the contradictions that govern identity in the post-colonial world.

With an idiosyncratic mixture of styles, the design reflects this: The texture of every brushstroke is visible on Neil Patel's Rajasthani-inspired backdrop, which we're led to believe represents one of Das' paintings. Jazz-age British imperialists in black tie and wielding polo mallets foxtrot across the stage (costumes by Candice Donnelly). Das wears a European vest over his long white kurta and an artist's scarf wrapped loosely around his neck. Occasionally, Bamji brings that scarf over his face as if to scream silently into it. Director Carey Perloff has created a stunning visualization of the subtle intelligence of Stoppard's text.

And it is so smart: With tangents on the history of the gin and tonic, the governance of the British Raj, and the mythic romance of Krishna and Radha, Indian Ink is the theatrical equivalent of falling into a Wikipedia hole. It's impossible to walk away without having learned something new. History and myth perform a graceful waltz through a storyline that unfolds like a good mystery novel.

Stoppard cleverly uses Pike (a footnote-happy academic) to unpack many of his references and points of exposition. Under Perloff's sharp direction, this is not only unobtrusive to the forward motion of the plot, but also quite funny. Pike's fellow academic and guide, Dilip (the very funny Nick Choksi sporting a bushy retro-chic mustache), adds to the comic relief. The two traipse through 1980s Jummapur in search of clues, imbibing copiously along the way. It's like they're drinking their way through the plot of a National Treasure film, but one with far wittier repartee.

Despite his academic rigor, Stoppard casts a shadow of doubt over the notion that all history is knowable, that everything written in a book by a trusted expert can be taken as gospel. Over the course of the play, we watch Pike's fastidious research give way to an intangible romance, just enough beyond our grasp to inspire wonder and keep you on the edge of your seat.

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