After two world premieres, Bedlam has returned to what the company does best: new takes on classic plays. Director Eric Tucker’s revival of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia is a mixed blessing, getting some things right and some things wrong. The first problem is that although the domed performance space at The West End Theatre makes a lovely venue for a play set first in 1809 and then in the present the sound is difficult to understand because of the architecture. This is a mistake in a play where the words are so important.
Stoppard’s play takes place in a room in Sidley Park, Derbyshire, a stately home, the seat of the Coverley family, being used as the school for 13-year-old Thomasina to study mathematics and Latin with her tutor Septimus Hodge. In the present time (originally 1989), it also serves as the study for historian Hannah Jarvis (the author of a book on Lady Caroline Lamb) who is joined by mathematician Valentine Coverley and later literary critic and college professor Bernard Nightingale who has come to study Lord Byron’s connection with the family. The semicircular upstairs theater space at the West End Theatre with its columns is beautifully appropriate for the play setting. However, it is not clear if the painting on the wall of the gardens outside is meant to be the view out the window or a wall hanging in the room.
This being Bedlam famous for its experimental revivals, the second act is handled differently. The audience is asked to leave their seats in the amphitheater and when they return are given other seats now arranged on what had been the stage of the theater before. The second act then takes place mostly in the seats that were just vacated. Unfortunately, as both acts are supposed to take place in the same setting this is rather distracting. The opening of the second act is a speech given by Bernard which makes perfect sense in what now looks like a college lecture hall or an amphitheater but the rest of that act makes little sense in such a setting. In each act, a character enters and is made to walk through one of the rows of the audience, not only breaking the fourth wall of the theater so to speak but also inconveniencing everyone seated in that row.
The play which is a series of puzzles about literature, science, math, truth and sex alternates between past and present as the modern people attempt to decipher what actually happened back in 1809 in this very room. Among the puzzles that are eventually solved did Lord Byron kill poet Ezra Crater in a duel while both were staying at the house and who was the Hermit of Sidley Park during the next twenty years? Thomasina (who was inspired by Lord Byron’s mathematician daughter Ada Lovelace) is working on chaos theory and entropy long before these things were standard in science and math. There are also a series of interlocking affairs among the characters, commented on by the younger members of the family.
Aside from the fact that no one in this very British play has an English accent, the cast is rather uneven in their roles. As Hannah, the usually reliable Zuzanna Szadkowski is both bland and self-effacing. As her nominal fiancé Valentine Coverly, Mike Labbadia is overly emotional to the point of hysteria. Elan Zafir’s Professor Bernard is too bouncy and high-spirited. Deychen Volino-Gyetsa makes little impression as 18-year-old Chloe Coverly.
Caroline Grogan is quite charming as young Thomasina who ages from 13 to 17 but we are never quite certain as to her perspective. As her tutor Septimus Hodge, Shaun Taylor-Corbett is ironic and witty though again we are not entirely certain as to where he is coming from. Lisa Birnbaum’s Lady Croom, mother of Thomasina and Augustus, is too forward and brash for a 19th century titled lady. As the very minor poet Ezra Chater, Randolph Curtis Rand appears to be a major character though he disappears very early from the play. As the butler Jellaby, Alan Altschuler is played as a figure of fun as is Arash Mokhtar as the blustery Captain Brice, Lady Croom’s brother.
The production team is excellent at establishing the two time frames of the play. John McDermott’s scenic design makes it clear that the play begins in an 1809 country house. The costumes by Charlotte Palmer-Lane are fine in depicting the past and the present. Les Dickert’s lighting depicts two candlelight moments in the second act of which not much is made of by the production. Buffy Cardoza’s props are suitable to the time and place.
A great deal could be written about Stoppard’s discussions of mathematics and science as well as the influence of the past on the present but as this is the third major New York production, much has been written about this already. Eric Tucker’s direction is less fussy than in some of his revivals, a bit more intrusive than others. Bedlam’s revival of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia at three hours (somewhat longer than the last two New York revivals) is a challenging play with its big ideas and a substantial commitment for the theatergoer. It handles some things beautifully and other things not so well.
Arcadia (extended through January 7, 2023)
The West End Theatre, 263 W. 86th Street, in Manhattan
Running time: three hours including one intermission