Sometimes the ensemble numbers in Mozart operas fill me with a great sadness. Something about his extraordinarily subtle musical palette seems related to the twilight of the aristocracy. Mozart's noble patrons may not have appreciated his work, but they lived in a refined, irretrievable world that inspired music of a delicacy and beauty unlike anything before or since.
I sometimes wonder if Tom Stoppard, who was born in what was, until last week, the most timeless of European countries, Czechoslovakia, is unaware the aristocratic age is over. His work, although not exactly Mozartian, has an elegance, a rarefied quality that suggests he must have a noble patron who invites him to a comfy rococo palace where he can turn out exquisitely structured, witty plays.
"Artist Descending A Staircase," which opened last night at the Helen Hayes, is like a Faberge egg; it is very much an artifact fashioned for aristocratic temperaments. Its glittering surfaces reflect one another gracefully, precisely, giving off glints of brilliant color, hinting at unsuspected depths.
"Artist" is about three artists who have known one another since before World War I, when they shared the belief that art must be "constant surprise." It examines their relationship to each other, to their ideas about art and to a blind girl two of them loved.
The play begins in the present when one of them, after a lifetime of producing "groundbreaking" work, has returned to simple pictorialism. He now looks with scathing irony on his former beliefs, declaring "there is something divine about modern art...for it is only sustained by faith. That is why artists have become as complacent as priests."
The play moves backward to the summer of 1914, when the three are hiking through France trying to convince themselves no war is taking place around them. Their ability to ignore bombs is a paradigm for their later careers, willfully ignoring reality to create "images which are purely mental."
Having moved steadily backward, the play then rushes forward, showing us the aftermath of each of the scenes we have already seen, bringing us back to where we began, leaving us certain of some things, less certain of others (which sounds more complicated in print than it seems in the theater.)
Born a Czech, Stoppard has spent his life in England, where he has absorbed the Stiff Upper Lip esthetic. His characters are invariably endowed with great wit, but their emotional life is kept under rigid control. If properly performed, this can be quite poignant.
In this production, the actors are solid at stating Stoppard's ideas about modern art, less at ease understating their feelings. Of the three actors playing the artists as old men, Paxton Whitehead is the most convincing, not simply because his accent is so secure but because he is a man who lives mainly in his head. Harold Gould is not persuasively English, but he conveys the artist's sense of bold eccentricity. John McMartin has appealing grace at the artist losing his faith in modernism, but his emotional outpouring is too strong to trigger ours.
Of the younger versions of the artists, only Michael Cumpsty has the voice and the style down. As the blind woman, Stephanie Roth handles her physical business beautifully but lacks the British reticence that might make her more moving.
Tony Straiges' set and Tharon Musser's lighting capture the modernist, jigsaw-puzzle quality of the play splendidly. Joseph G. Aulisi's costumes help keep the changing time frames clear. Despite weaknesses in the acting, the play impresses.
Can a British radio play written in 1972 find love and happiness on Broadawy in 1989, or hopefully, 1990? It rather depends on the radio play, doesn't it - and Tom Stoppard's "Artist Descending a Staircase," which opened last night at the Helen Hayes Theater, is scarcely your standard broadcast fare.
In fact, this exercise in "mental acrobatics," experiment with dramatic time, a romantic thriller combining love with death while philosophizing on art and artistry and our relative perception of temporal chronology, is scarcely your standard Broadway fare.
Like most of Stoppard's plays, it makes as many demands upon your intelligence as upon your susceptibilities, and massages its audience's chic sophistication and snob culture, rather as coarser Broadway playwrights massage an audience's secret prejudices and hidden insecurities.
Yet, always remember, in Stoppard's plays their self-conscious cleverness only serves to disguise a real cleverness lurking in the depths of their mechanical and efficiently satisfying souls.
The play was written around the time of "Travesties," and although it is not so mind-bending, or so ingratiating, as that wondrous piece of intelligent charm, it has much of the same sensibility.
Here we have an overt love story - guilelessly sentimental when stripped of its trappings - of a blind girl and three artists, all of whom love her. One of these loves is requited - although the lucky lover deserts her - and the other two are not.
As for the girl - she jumps or falls through a window, "death by defenestration" the Coroner calls it, but we know it is homicide by abandonment.
Now 50 years have past. The three artists, Beauchamp (Harold Gould), Martello (Paxton Whitehead) and Donner (John McMartin) are all living together in a shabby London studio - or rather were. For when the play opens Donner is dead - having jumped, fallen or been pushed over a banister and down a staircase.
How did Donner die? His death has, fortuitously, been recorded on Beauchamp's tape-recorder - and we know that immediately before his fall he said - presumably to someone he knew - "So, there you are!"
His last words are recorded but not explained. Part of the play is concerned with that mystery.
The play has been made into a Chinese box of a puzzle by Stoppard's extraordinary construction - which consists of two triangles in time, turned around to meet at their apexes.
Luckily it sounds more complex than it is - although how it was conveyed on sightless radio I cannot imagine - for the 11 scenes are symmetrically arranged around scene 6.
We start by going backwards in time to this scene, which takes place in 1914 at the beginning of World War I in Europe, and then the play reverses itself and winds itself back to the beginning and 1972.
There is something in common here with Harold Pinter's later play "Betrayal" (1978), but there we just started at the end and moved backward to the beginning - with all the irony such induced hindsight could offer.
Here in the Stoppard, the time factor seems to offer a collage of impressions. The artists concerned are elderly avant-gardists, and their early gods were the likes of Marcel Duchamp, Salvador Dali and the Dadaist polemicist Tristan Tzara, and it is significant that the play's title is a reference to Duchamp's celebrated, even notorious, "Nude Descending a Staircase."
Just as Duchamp attempted to suggest time and movement by superimposing five successive movements on a single image, Stoppard is trying for something of the same effect dramatically. And the result is to make us look at the continuum of time - and even to question the relative value of events placed in that continuum.
Donner fell to his death in 1972. Sophie (the blind girl they all loved) fell to her death in 1922. In the general scheme of things, the play asks, is there really any difference? Stoppard, a humanist above everything, staunchly insists that there is.
These are the kind of questions "Artist Descending" poses, and it poses them with a dazzling, iridescent wit and that kind of nudging awareness that - if you catch the not too obscure or arcane references to art and philosophy - can make you feel as if you had been initiated into an almost exclusive club.
A warning. I happen to like this kind of thing very much - it amuses and flatters me. Some people - possibly smarter than myself - could just as well be annoyed and eventually irritated.
This radio play was first produced in London at a pub theater a year before last, and then went on to a successful West End run. It was staged there, as here, by Tim Luscombe.
I liked it there and, if anything, I like it better in its more elaborate - excellent new scenery by Tony Straiges - Broadway manifestation.
However, I thought Stephanie Roth was just a degree or so too sweet, and too mannered, as blind Sophie, and although the artists as old men, the off-hand Gould, the petulant Whitehead and the acerbic McMartin, are all variously superb, the three young actors playing their earlier selves, Michael Cumpsty, Jim Fyfe and Michael Winther respectively, did not have quite the same gauche radiance of their London counterparts.
No matter - it is still a splendid performance of a play of shining wit, gleaming intelligence and glintingly metallic heart.
You know you're at a Tom Stoppard play when even the title lends itself to at least three different meanings.
In ''Artist Descending a Staircase,'' a 1972 radio play enjoying a full-dress staging at the Helen Hayes Theater, the title refers, first, to the evening's initial (but unseen) event: an elderly artist named Donner (John McMartin) has fallen down the staircase of his attic studio to his death - possibly after being pushed by one of his closest friends and colleagues of 60 years, Martello (Paxton Whitehead) or Beauchamp (Harold Gould).
As befits a work whose three artists have pursued Dadaist careers since the century's teens, its title is also an allusion to Marcel Duchamp's 1912 painting ''Nude Descending a Staircase.'' Mr. Stoppard's third staircase is to be found in a Playbill step chart that illustrates the story's flashback-flashforward time scheme. The play's first six scenes descend in intervals of hours and finally years from 1972 to 1914; the remaining five scenes take one back up the chronological staircase to 1972. To complete the symmetry, Mr. Stoppard's dramaturgical technique in turn mirrors the advancing, repeated image of Duchamp's Cubist-Futurist nude: the audience sees his characters in a progression of quick sketches that freeze them in isolated moments of time.
I don't have to tell you that Mr. Stoppard is clever. In this 85-minute work, that cleverness is not harnessed to a major play but to an often stimulating, sporadically funny and, at one uncharacteristic juncture, genuinely moving investigation of the nature of perception, memory and art. For those who admire the author's ''Jumpers'' and ''Travesties,'' this piece will offer special illumination. Written between the two, ''Artist Descending'' echoes ''Jumpers'' in its use of a whodunit to frame metaphysical questions and it anticipates ''Travesties'' in its preoccupation with that historic moment when Tristan Tzara, James Joyce and Duchamp (to take Mr. Stoppard's archetypal examples) helped reinvent art to suit a civilization in which rationality and its esthetic corollary, classicism, were being shattered by the Great War.
The evening's whodunit is: Who pushed Donner? The answer, which will not be revealed here, is inextricably bound to Mr. Stoppard's larger inquiry into how people, and artists in particular, see the world (or fail to see it). As it happens, Donner's last moments of life - ambiguous fragments of sounds and words - have been captured by the tape recorder that Beauchamp uses to make the ''tonal art'' that is his John Cage-like oeuvre. But the meaning of these aural clues, which are replayed and re-examined nearly as assiduously as the tape in Francis Coppola's film ''The Conversation,'' depends on the ear and the character of the listener.
As ''Artist Descending'' travels back in time - a feat requiring a second, younger set of actors to play the three artists - another, visual mystery of a half-century earlier overlaps Donner's fatal fall. In 1919, at the trio's breakthrough exhibition, ''Frontiers in Art,'' a young woman named Sophie (Stephanie Roth) had fallen in love with one of the men at first sight. But which one? Sophie never had a second sight, because she soon went blind. Though she subsequently has a liaison with Beauchamp, the artist she thinks matches the face she adored, it is possible that Sophie was mistaken, and tragically mistaken at that. The evidence she used to identify Beauchamp was his proximity to an abstract composition that might easily have been confused with another artist's canvas at the same show.
By ingeniously linking his plot questions to his larger themes, Mr. Stoppard turns the play's running debate about art into something more compelling than academic chitchat. He raises the heat another notch by refusing to stack his character's arguments.
Certainly Mr. Stoppard sounds as conservative as Tom Wolfe (in ''The Painted Word'') when Donner, who has reverted to traditionalism in his dotage, dismisses the avant-garde as ''that child's garden of easy victories'' or when modern art is fatuously defended as opportunistic narcissism liberated from history, standards and accountability. In the pivotal 1914 sequence, Mr. Stoppard further mocks the three young artists for spouting frivolous artistic manifestoes while ignoring the bombs detonating around them during a hike through the French countryside.
Yet the playwright gives equal credence to the view that only ''nonsense art'' that ambushes the mind was possible after the cataclysmic absurdities of a surreal war. What's more, ''Artist Descending a Staircase'' itself, with its multiple points of view and denial of any naturalistic fix on people and events, adheres to modernist principles as keenly as any painting in the Braque-Picasso show now at the Museum of Modern Art. Even so, Mr. Stoppard keeps one guessing - and thinking - about where he stands by providing a steady stream of rude jokes at the expense of 20th-century artists and critics alike.
The precision of his wit is not consistently equaled by Tim Luscombe's staging, which greets the audience shakily with a phony-looking atelier (designed by Tony Straiges) and a trio of similarly bogus elderly artists. If only Rex Harrison and Stewart Granger were not otherwise engaged! Mr. Gould, Mr. McMartin and Mr. Whitehead - good actors all -don't remotely pass for octogenerians. Only Mr. Whitehead is credibly British, and Mr. McMartin, who carries the play's largest histrionic burden, is as sloppy with his emotions as he is with his accent. It's a relief when the youthful stand-ins arrive. Michael Cumpsty, Jim Fyfe and, especially, Michael Winther are excellent as the budding geniuses, even if their resemblance to their older selves is confusingly nonexistent.
The heart of the production is Ms. Roth, whose romantic heroine here is as touching as her spinster in the Peter Brook ''Cherry Orchard.'' Women in Stoppard plays have rarely, if ever, been this full-blooded. A scene in which Sophie serves the artists tea - a challenge for her, a lark for them - is imbued with the radiance of spiritual fortitude and devoid of self-pity. Her subsequent fall into loneliness and despair is Expressionism made flesh.
Perhaps Sophie is not the kind of beauty that the arrogant Beauchamp might demand from a model, but Ms. Roth's brilliant acting and Mr. Stoppard's writing make her beautiful in the manner of decidedly pre-Duchamp art. By understanding and embodying love - which she identifies as that ''secret in the deep center of my life'' - blind Sophie becomes the only person in ''Artist Descending a Staircase'' who can truly see.