Tom Stoppard's exhilarating "Arcadia" begins with a precocious 13-year-old girl in 1809 asking her handsome tutor, "What is carnal embrace?"
He explains that it is "the practice of throwing one's arms around a side of beef." To the extent that this play is a romp - an intellectual romp, to be sure - it's already off and running.
But the romp has begun even before the curtain rises. The curtain depicts the original Arcadia, the Garden of Eden, with its two inhabitants about to take a fateful step. Although the play leaps back and forth between the early 19th century - when the Age of Reason was giving way to Romanticism - and our own time - when the Age of Scientific Progress is giving way to Scientific Doubt - what matters is that image on the curtain.
The play is set in a grand room that does not change despite the passage of nearly two centuries. Its French windows look onto the gardens of an English estate, Sidley Park. One of the play's themes is the constant changes being wrought on the grounds to restore them to Arcadian innocence, as if the apple, once bitten, could be un-bitten.
In the earlier period, the poet Byron, who never appears onstage, is visiting Sidley Park. There is talk of a duel. It is not until late in the play that we learned what actually happened, but most of the characters in the present-day scenes are involved in reconstructing the events of 1809.
The most arresting character in the early period is 13-year-old Thomasina, who, in addition to her interest in carnal embrace, explores mathematical problems that barely make sense until our own time, when Valentine, her descendant, uses modern technology to answer her questions.
The focal character in the present is Valentine's fiance, Hannah, who has written a best seller on Byron. Because she is not an academic, her success has infuriated the hacks, one of whom has come to Sidley Park to do his own research.
Like his recent "Hapgood," "Arcadia" is based on the lessons of contemporary physics, in this case physicists' growing awareness of how little we can know with precision.
As Valentine points out, "What happens in a cup of coffee when the cream goes in is as full of mystery as the heavens were to the Greeks."
Valentine, however, does not despair that "the future is disorder." As he sees it, "It's the best possible time to be alive, when almost everything you thought you knew is wrong."
Thus the tone Stoppard finally sounds is one of celebration. The play ends in a dance: Waltzing around the stage are Thomasina and her tutor; Hannah and a mute who helps solve one of the mysteries of 1809.
As you have doubtless gathered, this is one of Stoppard's guessing-game plays, where the interest lies less in the characters' changing relationships than in the ideas the playwright so adroitly juggles.
Needless to say, this is the sort of play critics adore. Many of us were lured into this line of work by the promise of intellectual stimulation. On those rare occasions, we actually find it, we tend to go overboard - though I don't think one can praise "Arcadia" enough.
Unlike Stoppard's 1972 "Jumpers," an insufferably cerebral play for English schoolboys, "Arcadia" is enriched by the emotions lurking just beneath the surface, the unaccountable urge, that is, that made Eve want to share her discoveries with Adam.
Under Trevor Nunn's direction, an American cast handles the Mozartian elegance and delicacy of the text with great panache. Blair Brown makes Hannah vital and sexy, not just brainy. As Thomasina, Jennifer Dundas is enthralling, especially in a beautiful speech about the lost library of Alexandria.
Billy Crudup and Robert Sean Leonard exude great power as the Adams for these two Eves. Victor Garber is absolutely delicious as the academic hack; Lisa Ganes equally so as an 1809 aristocrat.
"Arcadia" is great cause for celebration.
Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia," which the Lincoln Center Theater opened last night at the Vivian Beaumont, is pure entertainment - entertainment for the heart, mind, soul and all those interstices between we forget about. It's a brief candle lighting up a naughty world.
It is also the best Broadway play for many, many a season. It is a work shot through with fun, passion and, yes, genius.
We enter the theater to be faced with a huge cylindrical rendering of Poussin's famous painting (actually Poussin cribbed it from Guercino, but who cares?) with its tombstone inscription "Et in Arcadia ego" suggesting that death, too, dwells even in Arcadia.
This is just the curtain! But it is also the play's first hint of mortality - fo rthis is a mortally sinful comedy that toys with a whole recital of history, of order and chaos, science and art, life and death, love and sex, fame and celebrity, truth and fiction.
Nothing is safe from the intoxicating whirl of ideas which it draws into a vortex, be it English landscape gardening, Newtonian physics, Byron's mysterious flight from England in 1809, the classicism of Claude and the Gothic romanticism of Salvator Rosa, Horace Walpole and Thomas Love Peacock, the second law of thermodynamics, the conundrum of Fermat's mathematical theorum of numbers, the lost plays of Sophocles and Aeschylus, even dwarf dahlias in the botanically unlikely region of Mozambique.
Like Shakespeare's Autolycus, Stoppard is a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles but having snapped them up he considers them with reverence, relevance and the dangerous, dazzling deftness of a tapdancer on the rim of a volcano.
The play is - if one can be telegraphic about a library - a literary detective story. It takes place in a room in Sidley Park, an English stately home - in 1809-12 and today. The time zones are interleaved and toward the end even intermingled.
A 13-year-old girl Thomasina Coverly (Jennifer Dundas), a precocious student, is being taught mathematics and Latin by her young tutor, fresh from Cambridge, Septimus Hodge (Billy Crudup). It soon becomes apparent that tutoring is not the only thing on Hodge's mind, as he is challenged to a duel by a bad poet, Ezra Chater (Paul Giamatti), whose wife Hodge seems to have podged in a gazebo.
Now a fast forward to the present takes us to the same room - the Coverly family still owns the house - where some literary types, Hannah Jarvis (Blair Brown) a popular biographer, Bernard Nightingale (Victor Garber) a university lecturer, and the son of the house, Valentine Coverly (Robert Sean Leonard) a mathematician, find themselves involved in a long-lost scandal.
Did the great poet Lord Byron ever stay at Sidley Park, was he involved in a fatal duel with the virtually unknown Chater, and was this the cause of this precipitate flight to Europe, the precise motives for which have long puzzled Byron's biographers?
Gradually the pieces come together in both overlapping sections of the play - but they come together in slightly different versions; the truth and the historical fiction.
Yes, Byron was at Sidley House - brought there by his friend Hodge. Byron even had an affair with Lady Croom (Lisa Banes), the chatelaine of the manor, not to mention the horizontally inclined Mrs. Chater.
But did he fight and kill Chater? There is some evidence that he did, and Nightingale jumps on it like an academic terrier searching a garland at the local dog show. And how about Lady Croom's garden, with its fake hermitage but, for nearly 30 years, a very real hermit?
Stoppard delightfully and delightedly leads us up garden paths and literary byways, with his two interlocking casts (by the way don't expect Byron himself to appear) often interlocked by sex, love and circumstance.
Stoppard pays his audience the sensible compliment of assuming we know more than we do, while his language rangers from gutter-chic to epigrams that sound Wildean, but without Wilde's smug sense of gotcha-self-congratulation.
When I first saw "Arcadia" a couple of years ago at London's National Theater, it also had, as here, Mark Thompson's exquisite designing and Trevor Nunn's impeccable staging.
The performances seemed much of a muchness in quality, with the women being slightly better in London, and the men (I particularly commend Garber, Crudup and Leonard) being slightly better in New York.
But this is a play where the text is almost everything (Dundas, by the way, should enunciate it more clearly), if only in the dizzy opportunities it offers director, actors and - not least - audiences.
There's no doubt about it. "Arcadia" is Tom Stoppard's richest, most ravishing comedy to date, a play of wit, intellect, language, brio and, new for him, emotion. It's like a dream of levitation: you're instantaneously aloft, soaring, banking, doing loop-the-loops and then, when you think you're about to plummet to earth, swooping to a gentle touchdown of not easily described sweetness and sorrow.
That's the play.
Trevor Nunn's Lincoln Center Theater production, which opened last night in the Beaumont, is a reasonable American facsimile of those he staged in London, first at the Royal National in 1993, then at the Haymarket in the West End transfer last year. The Beaumont production looks gorgeous and is true to the letter and spirit of the Stoppard words, but it should be better.
"Arcadia" demands something more than a reasonable facsimile if American audiences are to be consistently beguiled by this most ambitious of English comedies. It's a complicated piece, played in two time frames (1809 and the present) by two sets of characters. They share the same great country house, Sidley Park, and occasionally the same stage props, including a tortoise that's named Plautus in 1809 and Lightning today.
Mr. Stoppard's theatrical conceits are exhilarating; his interests are diverse but interlocking, always riveting and sometimes brazenly deep-dish, which is part of the fun. Among his concerns here: first love, Newtonian physics, hustling pedants, landscape gardening, sexual infidelity, class, the mathematics of deterministic chaos, manners and the absolute end of the universe when, one character observes, "We're all going to wind up at room temperature."
Mr. Stoppard pushes the audience to the edge of delicious bewilderment, then he suddenly pulls back to make all as clear as need be. The playwright is a daredevil pilot who's steady at the controls.
At the center of "Arcadia" is a mystery that is the consuming passion of a contemporary literary don, Bernard Nightingale (Victor Garber): did Lord Byron, while visiting Lord and Lady Croom at Sidley Park in 1809, fight a duel in which he killed a grossly untalented poet, Ezra Chater, over the honor of Chater's wife? And was that the reason for Byron's hasty, heretofore unexplained departure from England for the Continent?
Bernard is hungry for acceptance in academe, and even hungrier for the celebrity that comes with publication and the inevitable talk-show appearances. He's a loose cannon, a dangerously quick-minded, noisily self-centered man who doesn't care whom he insults or makes passes at. Chief among his victims: Hannah Jarvis (Blair Brown), a best-selling author and landscape historian; Valentine Coverly (Robert Sean Leonard), an Oxford student of scientific mind, and his sister Chloe (Haviland Morris), two children of the present Lord and Lady Croom.
In the course of his research, Bernard becomes convinced he has made "the most sensational literary discovery of this century." He has, of course, got it all wrong. "Arcadia" crosscuts between the present-day shenanigans at Sidley Park and the events that took place there nearly 200 years earlier. These involve poor Ezra Chater (Paul Giamatti), though only in a helplessly funny subsidiary role. Byron himself remains off-stage.
The more important players in the 1809 mystery are Septimus Hodge (Billy Crudup), a randy young man and part-time literary critic who is the tutor of 13-year-old Thomasina Coverly (Jennifer Dundas); Lady Croom (Lisa Banes), Thomasina's mother, who has never put off a man who had the good taste to presume on her virtue, and a celebrated landscape architect, Richard Noakes (Peter Maloney). Noakes is transforming Sidley Park's grounds from their comparatively natural look to a picturesque style that Hannah Jarvis in 1995 calls "the Gothic novel as landscape."
Hannah, too, becomes intent on solving a mystery: the identity of the hermit whom the earlier Crooms installed in their picturesque hermitage, built by Noakes as he was making mountains on land that had always been flat, and constructing ruins where no castle had ever existed.
The principal Stoppard characters are often driven, not always self-aware, very intelligent and furiously articulate, which is not to say they mean everything that comes out of their mouths. Bernard's vitriol is both hilarious and mean. Of scientists, he says to Valentine: "I'd push the whole lot of you over a cliff myself. Except the one in the wheelchair; I think I'd lose the sympathy vote."
The play's most affecting characters are Thomasina and Septimus, who affectionately regards his pupil as the child she is.
Thomasina, who doesn't yet know what "carnal embrace" means, doodles away in her notebook, apparently to stumble onto today's new, nonlinear mathematics. She has the gift, sometimes possessed by the young, to conceive abstract concepts beyond the comprehension of those whose minds have been made soggy with received wisdom. She is also in love with Septimus, which has melancholy consequences.
As Bernard continues his investigations, it's clear to the audience, if not to him, that both Thomasina and Septimus are part of the mystery whose solution he so thoroughly muddles.
At the beginning of "Arcadia," the two time frames are presented in separate, usually alternating scenes. As the play progresses, the times begin to merge, at first when the present-day characters are seen in 1809 costumes for a fancy dress ball. Further along, the characters from each section occupy the stage at the same time.
As Thomasina, Septimus and Lady Croom, and Bernard, Hannah and Valentine play around and through one another, they create the contrapuntal effect of a piece of music. It's tricky but hugely effective. The two stories come together in a way to give dramatic dimension to some of the more esoteric notions that have been bandied about earlier.
Not all the actors are well cast. They work doggedly to achieve an ensemble performance that always eludes them. Mr. Garber and Ms. Brown are the most successful; they have the technique. Mr. Crudup also fares well.
In fact, everyone has good moments, but they're not at the same time. Ms. Dundas is much more effective as Thomasina at 13 than she is at 17. Mr. Leonard's Valentine is perfectly O.K. until he has to explain "the new geometry of irregular forms" to Hannah. The words overwhelm him and us. Though it isn't Mr. Stoppard's most felicitous scene, it doesn't seem to be staged to help the actor.
At the preview performance I attended, another problem appeared to be some actors' difficulty in projecting unfamiliar English accents to carry throughout the large Beaumont space. As a result, the performance was frequently edgy and blurred. If the actors were using body mikes, they weren't working efficiently. The words could be heard, though not always understood.
There are real difficulties with this production, but also great pleasures, not the least of which are Mark Thompson's sets and costumes. Mostly, though, there are Mr. Stoppard's grandly eclectic obsessions and his singular gifts as a playwright. Attend to them.
Some eyebrows were raised last year when Lincoln Center Theater announced plans to produce two Tom Stoppard plays in one season, "Hapgood" followed by "Arcadia.""Hapgood" already had a checkered history, including a Los Angeles production that failed to transfer to New York, and Lincoln Center Theater's agreement to do it was perceived as the price it paid for getting the heralded "Arcadia." The latter's London debut was a triumph for the author and Trevor Nunn, who staged it at the Royal National Theater, and the play is still a fixture in the West End.
But with a knockout production of "Hapgood," staged by Jack O'Brien and starring Stockard Channing, having recently concluded, and the arrival of Nunn's new staging of "Arcadia," the benefits of the plan make hash of any quibbles. "Hapgood" homed in on what may well be the playwright's holy grail: the merging of the intellectual and the emotional. Even if it never quite got there, the trip was a pleasure.
Like "Hapgood,""Arcadia" also operates on several very high planes -- Classicism vs. Romanticism; determinism vs. free will; hope vs. nihilism. But for those willing not to get too tangled up in the byplay, "Arcadia"-- even in this uneven and in some aspects disappointing production -- hits the bullseye, and its target is the heart. And while "Hapgood" may rightfully be seen as a warmup for this play, "Arcadia" fulfills the promise of Stoppard's 1983 boulevard comedy, "The Real Thing." In "Arcadia," he gets everything right.
Split between the first years of the past century and the end of the present one, "Arcadia" unfolds at a country estate in Derbyshire. Sidley Park is in the throes of change in 1809, and of historical explication in 1995.
In the earlier century, a brilliant, rakish young tutor named Septimus Hodge (Billy Crudup) has long since been outdistanced by his protege, Thomasina Coverly (Jennifer Dundas), a math prodigy who, still shy of her 14th birthday, has discovered a rough algebraic formulation that many decades later will be seen as a rudimentary blueprint of modern physics concepts -- chaos theory, thermodynamics, entropy -- and may help predict how the universe will end. Septimus is lusted after by various residents and hangers-on at the estate, and is a pal of the unseen Lord Byron, who occasionally hunts there.
Thomasina's mother, the archly witty Lady Croom (Lisa Banes), has engaged landscape architect Richard Noakes (Peter Maloney) to transform the estate's Classical gardens after the trendier Romantic fashion, complete with unruly forests, fallen obelisks and a hermitage resembling a hovel.
Also present are the blustering Ezra Chater (Paul Giamatti), a writer of doggerel whom Septimus has cuckolded; and Captain Brice (David Manis), Lady Croom's brother.
In the present, historian Hannah Jarvis (Blair Brown) has been invited to Sidley Park, where she is researching the landscape changes that have taken place over two centuries. She is joined by the flamboyant Bernard Nightingale (Victor Garber), a climber from academe drawn there by rumors of Byron's part in a scandal at the estate.
In six scenes that shift between the two periods, we see what actually took place and how clues are then interpreted by the present-day historians. Skeptical at first, Septimus gradually comes to understand the significance of Thomasina's formula, even as the girl herself struggles to find nature, life, in her numbers. The cool, impenetrable Hannah is obsessed with the "hermit" of the hermitage, who in truth began as a sketch made jokingly on a rendering of the building but who, like so much else in the play, takes on a darker significance.
Thomasina grabs our attention, seeking, in her iterated logarithms, the presence of God, every bit as much as Wordsworth at Tintern Abbey but with the yearning ache of a girl on the verge of womanhood. She hunts for nature in algebra, and though the formulas defy her, she persists. "If there is an equation for a curve like a bell, there must be an equation for one like a bluebell," she argues with Septimus, "and if a bluebell, why not a rose?"
The exchange is echoed in one between Bernard and Valentine Coverly (Robert Sean Leonard), the present-day scion of the estate and a mathematician who has discovered Thomasina's notebooks and their disturbing revelations. Though Valentine does most of the play's intellectual hard labor, he's reduced to tears when Bernard argues that, given a choice between science and poetry, he'll take poetry: "Don't confuse progress with perfectability," Bernard sneers at Valentine. "A great poet is always timely. A great philosopher is an urgent need. There's no rush for Isaac Newton. ... Quarks, quasars -- big bangs, black holes -- who gives a shit? ... If knowledge isn't self-knowledge, it isn't doing much, mate."
And it's Valentine and his sister Chloe (Haviland Morris) who realize that the fly in all this highfalutin ointment is sex --"the attraction Newton forgot" in spelling out a deterministic universe that proves to be anything but. "The unpredictable and the predetermined unfold together to make everything the way it is," Valentine says.
The hunger for meaning and discovery palpable in every line of the play ultimately links both halves of "Arcadia" in a seventh scene that interweaves these imperfect pilgrims in a haunting tableau vivant.
The play begins with Thomasina asking Septimus to define the term "carnal embrace," then presents several examples of it in two different eras, and concludes with the doomed Thomasina and Septimus waltzing on the eve of a birthday she will not live to see, while Hannah accepts the hand of another Coverly descendant, the mute Gus (John Griffin), for a dance of their own.
I wish I could be as enthusiastic about this new production as I am about Stoppard's achievement, but that's impossible. The casting is a hash of disappointments seasoned with a few outstanding performances; and while the essentials of Mark Thompson's elegant set -- a bright day-room with a book-laden table and a series of high windows looking out into the undefined gardens -- have been re-created, the whole has inexplicably been crammed onto the Beaumont's thrust.
And as great a theater as the Beaumont is, "Arcadia" is its undoing: The actors fight an echo that makes them impossible to understand much of the time (and they're further muzzled by English accents that bring them up short).
Some of this might have been overcome by better casting, but while the smaller roles are well filled -- notably Giamatti's foolish poet manque and Banes' preening Lady Croom -- most of the major ones are wanting. Thomasina requires a quality at once ethereal and preternaturally assured; Dundas is neither, and she and Crudup are at a loss to re-create the electricity generated by Emma Fielding and Rufus Sewell, the original Thomasina and Septimus. As Hannah -- unfortunately, the most underwritten role, with the reason for her aloofness as much a mystery at the end of the play as at the beginning -- Brown is almost wholly unsympathetic, as is Garber's way-over-the-top Nightingale.
Far better is Morris' Chloe, lithe and winning. But to understand what's been lost in the transition, one need only look to Leonard's Valentine. With conviction and easy grace, he makes the play's heaviest lines weightless and ultimately puts a natural face on much talk about iterated algorithms and the theory of heat loss. It's a beautiful perf that should have been one among many but regrettably, isn't.