BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
Many mysteries upon mysteries involving literature, science, algebra and the inscrutable ways of the heart are explored in “Arcadia,” Tom Stoppard’s altogether lovely and typically brainy play from 1993.
Switching in time between 1809 and the present day, the play is an imaginative treasure chest packed with playful wit and significant wisdom. But there is a crucial problem with the Broadway revival that opened on Thursday at the Barrymore Theatre:
It’s often difficult to understand what some of the actors are saying, which hinders your full enjoyment – and perhaps even your comprehension – of the play.
A combination of British accents, indistinct diction, unsatisfactory sound reinforcement and the sheer rapidity with which complex ideas are expressed by the cast makes director David Leveaux’s production a challenge to appreciate.
At first I thought it might be me, but at intermission the other evening there was a crowd of angry people surrounding the house manager out in the lobby telling him they could not clearly hear the dialogue.
Time-tripping “Arcadia” occurs in a beautiful, sparsely-furnished room in a stately British manor house.
The modern-day story involves Hannah (Lia Williams), a bestselling author, and Bernard (Billy Crudup), an ambitious university don. They are researching different historical projects relating to the country estate back in the early 1800s.
Hannah’s work regards a radical change in the landscaping occurring at that time which reflects a major shift in cultural tastes. Bernard arrives with a sensational theory that legendary Lord Byron killed a long-forgotten poet named Chater in a duel there.
Valentine (Raul Esparza), a mathematics wiz and heir to the estate, his sister Chloe (Grace Gummer) and their younger brother Gus (Noah Robbins) figure into the two scholars’ lives as they try to piece together the hazy past.
The 1809 story spins around Septimus (Tom Riley), a chum of Lord Byron’s and the tutor to Thomasina (Bel Powley), a brilliant 13-year-old girl whose aristocratic parents are redoing their grounds according to the latest fashion. Chater (David Turner), Thomasina’s mama Lady Croom (Margaret Colin), her blustering brother (Glenn Fleshler) and the landscape maker (Byron Jennings) are among the individuals whose Regency era doings prove not to be precisely what Bernard hopes to dig up 200 years later.
As scenes from the past and the present play out and at last mingle, “Arcadia” regales theatergoers with all sorts of intellectual acrobatics on a multitude of themes. Or it would, if you could hear the wordplay distinctly.
Riley, Williams and Powley have been imported from England for this production. Riley’s smart, assured Septimus is altogether a charmer. Williams’ confident Hannah is dryly humorous. A key offender in the audibility problem, the unfortunately high-pitched Powley aims for winsomeness as Thomasina but seems merely precious.
Esparza is appropriately intense as unromantic Valentine but rattles away too quickly to be thoroughly understood. Colin, however, takes her time as grand Lady Croom and is very funny for doing so. Crudup (who created the role of Septimus in the memorable 1995 American premiere) invests the glib Bernard with a smug quality that pays off very nicely when his literary theory explodes in his face.
The revival’s design aspects are handsome – Donald Holder’s lighting nicely eases the transitions in time – while composer Corin Buckeridge’s piano music adds greatly to the show’s increasing wistfulness in mood. Keeping the play’s underlying emotions rather on the cool side, Leveaux grievously errs by usually pacing the conversations at a hasty clip. No doubt the director knows the play very well but he should not assume that American audiences can follow its British and Stoppardian intricacies quite so easily.
“Arcadia” continues through June 19 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th St., New York. Call (212) 239-6200 or visit www.arcadiabroadway.com.