Tom Stoppard is a celebrated, cerebral playwright whose The Coast of Utopia stands as one of the greatest theatrical experiences in recent memory. Unfortunately, the current Broadway revival of arguably his best play is uneven, at best. But because of one effective performance, Arcadia is still a must-see.
The nearly three-hour time-shifting drama deals with literary exploration and historical footprints. On paper, it reads beautifully. On stage, it can be trying — mostly because Stoppard has a convoluted plot hidden within dense dialogue. To be sure, the utterances that come from these characters have a sheer beauty to them, but they are difficult to follow at times. His creations speak academic words and reference great literary works like a New Yorker may order ingredients on a hot dog.
But that’s the wonder of Stoppard. He doesn’t dumb down his texts for audiences looking for an easily digestible work of drama. He is interested in elevating both the proceedings on the stage and the knowledge of the audience members with plays that challenge both the brain and the mind.
In Arcadia, the audience watches two story lines develop. In 1809, we find ourselves in the main room of an English countryside estate. Septimus Hodge (Tom Riley) is tutoring the young lady of the house, Thomasina Coverly (Bel Powley). Through their cheerful first scene together we learn that the married Lady Croom (Margaret Colin) is quite the magnet to the men in the house, including Septimus himself. Also lounging around the estate is Lord Byron, the famed British poet who is never seen in the melee of Arcadia.
Flash forward to the present day, and we’re in the same main room of that English countryside estate. But now we are dealing with laptops and book deals. The Coverly family name has been passed down through the years, and the secrets of the estat, are still explored by interested scholars. The two chief explorers are Hannah Jarvis (Lia Williams), a writer interested in the estate’s gardens and hermitage, and Bernard Nightingale (Billy Crudup), an academic who believes he’s found the historical secret of why Lord Byron left England for continental Europe so many years ago.
The premise is complex, but understandable (for the most part). Most scenes are broken down into easy-to-comprehend conversations between two characters; at the heart of Arcadia are struggling souls searching for something larger in life.
The problem with this particular revival is that much of the acting is haphazard. Powley’s Thomasina is annoying and features such a high-pitched British accent that many of her lines of dialogue are inaudible. Colin, who normally is in fine form, is also miscast as Lady Croom, never feeling like she grabs hold of the role. Raúl Esparza, who plays Valentine Coverly in the present day, is a little too droll.
Crudup, much like he did in The Coast of Utopia, offers a fine portrayal. His Nightingale is a nervy, learned man who is gleeful with the unexpected turns of his academic journeying. I also admired Riley’s Septimus; he imbues the character with the right balance of dashing and wit.
The best of the bunch, and one of the reasons why Arcadia is a must-see, is Williams’ wonderful turn as Hannah. It’s almost impossible to turn one’s head away from her elegant reading of Stoppard’s words. She’s a vibrant person up on the Barrymore Theatre stage, where Arcadia continues through June 19. Her Hannah makes the other characters fade into the distance. We feel for her discoveries. We understand her difficulties. We learn to love her enthusiasm and faults.
This masterpiece of a play is in good hands when Williams is bringing it to life.
David Leveaux, who directed this production with a different cast in London, is unable to pull the elements together to make a completely cohesive night at the theater. He has the action set against a blah set by Hildegard Bechtler, and sometimes the plot feels sluggish, when it should come alive.
But all is not lost. There is no denying that Stoppard’s words still sing, and Williams gives them justice as Hannah.
By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com
- Directed by David Leveaux
- Written by Tom Stoppard
- Starring Billy Crudup, Margaret Colin, Lia Williams, Tom Riley, Bel Powley, David Turner and Raúl Esparza
- Playing at the Barrymore Theatre at 243 W. 47th St. in New York City
- Click here for more information.
- Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes