The play zips between the early 19th century and the late 20th century, but uses the same set, here a simple evocation of an elegant room and a garden by Mark Evancho. The main questions of the plot that joins the two periods are did Lord Byron stay at Sidley Park in Derbyshire; what was the fate of the poet Ezra Chater (Jonathan Tindle, playing a gently nervous soul quite well), and what happened to the hermit in the hermitage.
In the 19th century, Thomasina Coverly (a delightful, many-layered Caitlin Duffy) shows signs of undeveloped genius as she solves difficult mathematical problems and asks mature questions under the tutelage of handsome Septimus Hodge (Andrew William Smith, trying to be cool, but oozing sensuality). It is Thomasina who casually introduces the elusive hermit almost as an afterthought and it is she whose poignant fate is revealed to the audience, but not to her.
That household is also populated by Chater; landscape artist, Richard Noakes (Sebastian LaPointe, obsequious to a fault); Lady Croom (Megan Byrne, a bit too regal, but great fun) who’s the mother of Thomasina and Augustus Coverly (Manny Durán, young and still forming as an actor and the only cast member who appears in both time periods); and Lady Croom’s brother, Captain Brice (Steven Dykes who also skillfully doubles as the butler Jellaby).
These characters fall into stringent class lines and behave accordingly—mostly at the beck and call of Lady Croom. She has hired Noakes to re-design her famous gardens. His book of designs for that garden becomes the center of much intellectual debate in Act Two which takes place some one hundred eighty years after Act One.
The artifacts of the 19th century are pored over in the 20th century by the pretentious and over-eager don, Bernard Nightingale (Alex Draper, pompous, but likeable) and his nemesis, Hannah Jarvis, a sober, yet obsessed writer played with poise and authority by Stephanie Janssen who finds everything Stoppard’s words will allow to be the “modern woman,” profanity included (in direct contrast with Thomasina).
With the help of Valentine Coverly (Jackson Prince, eager and energetic) evidence concerning the mysteries comes to light. His sister Chloë (sweetly vacant Eliza Renner) gets all flirty with Nightingale.
As proofs are tirelessly yanked bit by bit from the era of Lady Croom, Jarvis and Nightingale come to believe they have solved all the puzzles. But have they?
The joy of Stoppard’s writing comes to the fore as the second act characters debate what happened in the first act, too often getting it all wrong, misinterpreting the evidence or jumping to too many conclusions that aren’t justified. These actors are so enjoyable to watch that we can only sit back and enjoy their self-delusions.
At one memorable moment toward the final curtain, past and present mingle. The 20th century characters (wearing 19th century period dress for a costume party) and the first act characters wander about the garden, their proximity to each other touching and astonishing.
Mira Veikley’s costumes clearly defined the periods and Hallie Zieselman’s lighting provided many moods.
Arcadia (through August 6, 2017)
Potomac Theatre Project (PTP/NYC)
Atlantic Stage 2, 330 West 16th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-352-3101 or visit http://www.ptpnyc.org
Running time: two hours and 50 minutes including one intermission