British playwright Tom Stoppard knows how to create complex, interlocking plots (“Hapgood”), invent fashionably vexing characters (“The Real Thing”), manipulate the pants off parody (“Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern”), and even (most recently) romanticize political activism in 19th century Russia (“The Coast of Utopia”). “Arcadia,” which opened on Broadway in 1995 (following its 1993 London premiere), remains Stoppard’s most commercially successful play. It is unquestionably his most intellectually primed comedy. To fully enjoy it as well as to appreciate the audaciously considered conceits, the audience is required to listen to academically postulated theories as they are woven through three hours of romantically engaging discourse.
In the David Leveaux-directed revival, which has already enjoyed an acclaimed run in London, we can revisit the playwright at the peak of his tantalizing powers. For those who are willing to lend an ear, the experience is quite exhilarating. Best of all, it is fun. Stoppard has concocted an intriguing time-traveling plot. Two sets of characters, from the past and the present, set about the task of reinforcing both certain and also questionable truths about their private lives and the social proprieties and improprieties in their own time.
Late in the play, past and present are acted out simultaneously, and we discover how the past has been woefully misinterpreted by the history-poking contemporaries. Until this intriguing coup de theatre happens, the audience is privy to an avalanche of witty postures and impostures regarding art, science, mathematics, romantic indiscretions and perhaps, and even more conspiringly relevant the evolution of landscape gardening.
All this is activated when a limelight-seeking contemporary literary scholar, Bernard Nightingale (Billy Crudup), aggressively proceeds to prove his assumption that Lord Byron’s quick exit from England in 1809 was the result of his killing a second-rate poet in a duel. We are propelled back and forth in time and always to the same place — a room on the garden side of a very large country house in Derbyshire. It’s a handsomely austere room without a view by designer Hildegard Bechtler that insists that you use your imagination to see the exterior.
The current cast, including three members of the London company, is quite splendid. Some will undoubtedly catch the attention of awards nominators. Among those caught up in the present tense of this circumstance-extenuating and character-assassinating research are, in addition to Billy Crudup, successful author Hannah Jarvis (Lia Williams), science-consumed Oxford student Valentine Coverly (Raul Esparza), and his sister, Chloe Coverly (Grace Gummer). The juicier past includes a handsome young roue turned tutor and occasional critic Septimus Hodge (Tom Riley) and his 13-year-old student Thomasina (Bel Powley).
The play begins audaciously with the mathematically intuitive Chloe determined to find out the meaning of “carnal embrace” from Septimus, who is willing to take a sabbatical from his lustier pursuits to join Chloe in her realm of non-linear equations.
Although “Arcadia” is filled to overflowing with nuanced performances, the kind that richly fuel the insinuating and provocative discourse, one performance stands out for its assertive grand-standing. Crudup, who played the role of the tutor in the 1995 Broadway production, is outstanding as Nightingale, the aggressively brash and blissfully self-congratulatory college professor. In his Broadway debut, Riley makes an immediately disarming case for Septimus, a man who is academically as well as amorously disposed. Notwithstanding the quirky timbre in her voice, Powley is also making an impressive Broadway debut as the precocious and disarmingly brainy Thomasina.
One has to admire how the always terrific Esparza shades the rather passive role of the academic Coverly with a condescendingly bemused and attention-getting air of playful cynicism. Margaret Colin affects an earthy elegance as Thomasina’s mother, Lady Croom, as she chatters on about her cuckolded guest Ezra Chater (David Turner). Williams is fine and fidgety in the play’s most perplexing character, Jarvis, the author who seems to thrive on the challenge of her heated collaboration with Hodge.
Grace Gummer (Meryl Streep’s daughter) glows as Valentine’s romantically inclined sister Chloe. Also impressive in supporting roles are Noah Robbins doubling as Gus and Augustus Coverly, Glenn Fleshler as the pompous Captain Brice, and Byron Jennings as the landscape architect.
The dialogue throughout the play is both daunting and dizzying. Therefore, you have to pay careful attention to what is being said and by whom. But this consideration pays off. “Arcadia” is precisely calculated to confound as well as to delight. If you have a craving for abstract theories, inscrutable plots, and esoteric/academic yakety yak, “Arcadia” will prove to be wonderfully satisfying. ***
“Arcadia,” through Sunday, June 19, Ethel Barrymore Theater, 243, West 47th Street. $71.50 to $121.50; $226.50 (premium price tickets). 212-239-6200.