When a preternaturally intelligent girl asks her scrumptious tutor to define “carnal embrace,” he replies, unfazed, “the practice of throwing one’s arms around a side of beef.”
With that exchange, Tom Stoppard’s time-tripping “Arcadia” begins. It works equally well as a play about sex with a lot of highbrow talk thrown in and as a play about highbrow matters with plenty of sex.
It’s not, however, about star turns. This may be news to Billy Crudup, whose career was launched as that tutor in the 1995 Broadway premiere. Returning in an overripe performance as a pop historian hot on the scent of another best-seller, he upends a show already unbalanced by an uneven cast. They’re further hampered by diffuse sound that turns a thrilling mystery into a challenge for the most alert audience member.
That’s the bad news and frankly I hope you’ll ignore it. Stoppard’s dazzling 1993 meditation on lust, thermodynamics and horticulture couldn’t be timelier or more poignant: His young genius considers the breakdown of the universe from a child’s point of view with the same wide-eyed horror we may be feeling as we watch events unfold in Japan.
Shifting between the first years of the 19th century and the end of the 20th, “Arcadia” is set on a British country estate. In the earlier period, the rakish young tutor Septimus Hodge has long since been outdistanced by Thomasina Coverly, a math prodigy just shy of her 14th birthday. She has produced a rudimentary blueprint for quantum physics that may help predict how the universe will end.
Septimus is lusted after by the estate’s various residents and hangers-on, including Ezra Chater, a buffoonish writer of doggerel whom Septimus has brazenly cuckolded. He’s also a pal of the unseen Lord Byron, who occasionally hunts there. Thomasina’s mother has engaged an eccentric landscape architect to remake the formal gardens in the trendier Romantic fashion, complete with unruly woods, fallen obelisks and a crumbling hermitage.
In 1995 historian Hannah Jarvis is researching the changes that took place at Sidley Park. She is joined unexpectedly by glib, flashy Bernard Nightingale (Crudup), a climber from academe drawn by rumors of Byron’s role in a scandal at the estate.
Nature in Numbers
In six scenes that alternate between the two time periods, we see what actually took place and how clues are then interpreted by the historians. With the yearning of a girl on the verge of womanhood, Thomasina hunts for nature in her numbers 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 asks Septimus, “and if a bluebell, why not a rose?”
The exchange is echoed in one between Bernard and Valentine Coverly, the present-day scion of the estate and a mathematician who has discovered Thomasina’s notebooks and their prescient revelations.
Valentine and his sister Chloe (Grace Gummer, the image of her mother, Meryl Streep) realize that the unknown in the scientific formulas is sex, what the precocious Thomasina, 17 in her later scenes, calls “the attraction Newton forgot.”
A palpable hunger for meaning and discovery ultimately links the two halves of “Arcadia” in a final scene interweaving these imperfect pilgrims in a mesmerizing tableau vivant. David Leveaux’s staging heightens the differences between the centuries when we want to see them ineffably knit together.
Hildegard Bechtler’s set, suggesting the grandest of manors, lit with an almost liquid sunlight by Donald Holder, take us to this place as confidently as Gregory Gale’s fashionable costumes take us to those times.
The charm Crudup brought to Septimus 16 years ago is replaced by mugging as Bernard; perhaps he is feeling the need to juice Leveaux’s meticulous but somewhat disengaged production.
As Septimus, Tom Riley is youthfully appealing. Bel Powley gives us Thomasina’s voracious mind but not, until the final moments, her tragic soul. Byron Jennings does his usual high-level best as the architect. Better still are Lia Williams, smashing as the thorny Hannah, and especially Raul Esparza as Valentine.
Watch this extraordinary actor fall under Thomasina’s spell across the distance of nearly two centuries. Thomasina is the brain of “Arcadia.” Valentine, caught up in the nature-versus-science tumble, is its heart.
At the Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th St. Information: +1-239-6200; http://www.telecharge.com Rating: **1/2
What the Stars Mean: **** Excellent *** Very Good ** Average * Not So Good (No stars) Avoid
(Jeremy Gerard is an editor and critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)