|L-R: Andrew William Smith and Caitlin Duffy in ARCADIA. Photo by Stan Barouh.|
Tom Stoppard, arguably the world’s greatest living playwright, is a theatrical wizard and polymath whose plays involve the very biggest, deepest and most complex philosophical and scientific ideas, ranging from chaos theory to determinism to free will, from Fermat’s Last Theorem to fractals to computer algorithms, from Newton’s Second Law of Thermodynamics and entropy to the irreversibility of time, from Byron and poetry to landscape design and botany – ultimately arriving at man’s most fundamental ontological and epistemological questions regarding the very nature of life, death and reality itself. And if all that sounds daunting, never fear: Stoppard is such a literary genius that you’ll probably find him bringing more clarity to those subjects than you’re likely to have gotten from all the lectures and university courses in mathematics, physics and philosophy you may have attended over the years. And there’s little doubt in my mind that you’ll find Stoppard’s presentations far more entertaining to boot.
Arcadia, Stoppard’s masterwork, touches on all of the above and more and is widely recognized as one of the greatest plays of our time. Originally produced at the Royal National Theatre in London in1993, it won the 1993 Olivier and Evening Standard Awards for Best Play that year. When the first New York production opened two years later, it won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award and was nominated for the 1995 Tony Award. When it was revived in London, it received even more glowing reviews than it had 16 years earlier and a subsequent Broadway revival was equally successful. And now the play is being revived by PTP/NYC (Potomac Theatre Project) in association with Middlebury College in a terrific off-Broadway production at Atlantic Stage 2 on West 16th Street in Manhattan. Admittedly, one might assume that all those predecessor London and Broadway successes would be tough acts to follow but the PTC/NYC company has proved itself to be fully up to the task.
Arcadia is set in Sidley Park, a stately English home in both the years 1809–1812 and in the present (1993 in the original production and around the turn of the millennium in this latest revival). In this production, it is In 1809 that Thomasina Coverly (Caitlin Duffy), a teenage prodigy, apprehends a number of remarkable mathematical and physical truths on her own, including the laws of thermodynamics, chaos theory and fractals, while her tutor Septimus Hodge, (Andrew William Smith), is engaged in an illicit romantic liaison with Charity Chater, the wife of Ezra Chater (Jonathan Tindle), a second-rate poet who, upon discovering his wife’s dalliances, challenges Septimus to a duel. (Hodge is also a friend of Lord Byron who, as it turns out, also is staying at the house at the time and who also gets to sleep with Charity.) (Neither Charity nor Byron ever actually appear in the play, but the importance of their roles cannot be overestimated.)
In the present, Hannah Jarvis (Stephanie Janssen), a writer, is investigating the history of a hermit who may once have lived on the Sidley Park grounds, while Bernard Nightingale (Alex Draper), a literature professor, is investigating the very period in the life of Byron when he was in Sidley Park. As matters unfold, the truths about what actually occurred in Sidley Park two centuries earlier is gradually disclosed and the play’s many mysteries are (at least partially) resolved.