By: Samuel L. Leiter
November 12, 2023: Since 2012, the Off-Broadway troupe known as Bedlam has sometimes made it to the top of adventurous theatre making’s slippery slope; just as often it has slid back down to the bottom. The latter’s where you’ll find it at present if you venture forth to the West End Theatre on the UWS to sit through the three hours and five minutes of Bedlam’s misguided, grindingly dull revival of Tom Stoppard’s highly regarded, intellectually challenging Arcadia.
The play premiered at London’s Royal National Theatre in 1993 and played locally at Lincoln Center in 1995 and on Broadway in 2011, each version splashed with starry names both onstage and at the helm. Critical response, especially to the first two versions, was generally very strong, some noting their belief that Arcadia was one of the preeminent plays of the late 20th century. It would be hard to justify such an assessment on the basis of the current revival, tediously staged by Bedlam’s artistic director, Eric Tucker. It comes with a cast of unknowns, several miscast, and few capable of injecting sprightly life into the often cerebral, yet dryly witty, play. This is Tom Stoppard, after all, and even leading British actors in the original production revealed their struggle to comprehend some of its themes.
Arcadia carries a trunk-load of scientific, mathematical, and literary puzzles; often epigrammatic, high-comedy dialogue; and quirkily professorial debates. Such writing needs a cast of polished thespians able to communicate its complex thoughts in a way that makes them reasonably accessible while retaining the charm with which the playwright seeks to imbue the speakers.
Apart from an element of tragedy introduced late in the play, the characters often sound more like mouthpieces for the playwright’s cerebrations than fully realized people about whom we deeply care. That, however, only makes it more imperative that they be played by actors with a high degree of personal appeal and verbal skill, if simply to give the impression of people to whom you feel compelled to listen.
Written in two long acts and seven scenes, the play’s style, language, and characters are as high British as a Rolls-Royce, Aston-Martin, or Jaguar; Stoppard biographer Hermione Lee places it among “the most English of his plays.” It requires artists who can be convincing as upper-class, highly educated, scintillatingly articulate creatures, imbued with the privileged worlds depicted as if to the manner born. The action, all of it set in the same room on a large, Jane Austen-like country estate, Sidley Park, in Derbyshire, moves back and forth between 1809 and the present day, its focus being on the stately home’s Coverly family then and now.
A wide variety of intellectual concerns of each period—from chaos theory to Fermat’s theorem, not to mention the contrast between the Arcadian or neoclassical style of landscaping and the Romantic—is aired. This is not to deny that both sexual and romantic complications also bubble forth, providing much of the plot’s appeal. Meanwhile, the formal manners and speech of the 19th century are contrasted with the earthier ones of the late 20th, remaining all the while quintessentially British. Stoppard emphasizes the similarities with scenes having people from both eras present on stage simultaneously, making such moments vaguely reminiscent of an Alan Ayckbourn play.
Regardless of these facts, English accents have been entirely omitted here in favor of aggressively American ones, thoroughly robbing the work of its native spirit. And since, especially in the present-day scenes, the American accents are accompanied by American personalities, Derbyshire—a location of much significance in Stoppard’s life—increasingly seems more like the Hampshires than a place where Lord Byron once sojourned.
Byron, who himself doesn’t appear, is, it must be noted, a central figure in an abundance of academic detective work engaged in by a pair of modern scholars, Hannah Jarvis (Zuzanna Szadkowski, among the miscast) and Bernard Nightingale (Elan Zafir, overacting). The pair is concerned with documents that suggest the Romantic poet may have killed the second-rate poet and botanist Ezra Chater (Randolph Curtis Rand, blustery but bland) in a duel. Ultimately, the play is concerned with a portentous discovery in the early 19th century by the not-quite 14-year-old Thomasina Coverly (Caroline Grogan, the cast’s most promising presence). She is the genius student of the exceedingly bright, handsome young tutor, Septimus Hodge (Shaun Taylor-Corbett, a nice-looking bore). Her discovery? The second law of thermodynamics, which foresees the coming end of the universe.
The West Side Theatre, located in the St. Andrew and St. Paul United Methodist Church, is an intimate dome-topped, rotunda-shaped room whose upper portion consists of a series of arched spaces closed off by red curtains. Against the semicircular lower portion that serves as the rear wall of the acting space in Act 1, where a set would normally be placed, scenic designer John McDermott offers precious little: two blackboard panels and two panels over which have been placed two parts of a painting showing an Arcadian landscape. For no clear reason, one half hangs loosely as if it has partially come undone. Is it intended to represent a painting? Or is it meant to stand for Sidley Park’s garden? We never learn.
A couple of antique-style desks and chairs provide the principal furnishings. However unprepossessingly unattractive this may appear, it’s a scenic wonderland compared to Act 2. To prepare for it the audience is asked to leave the room so that what served as the acting area can be arranged with semicircular rows of uncomfortable white, wooden, spindle-backed chairs facing the plush-seats where the audience previously sat.
Throughout Act 2 the actors of both periods occupy the auditorium seats, completely obliviating any notions of time and place, and carrying out their bloviations ad infinitum. This meaningless directorial gimmick, which limits the blocking, only serves to distance the characters and what they’re saying from our immediate concern, reducing any budding interest we may have had in them or their situations.
Les Dickert’s lights are seemingly kept at the same bright, white intensity throughout Act 1, and only slightly varied during Act 2 for scene transitions. The finale, which uses the old flashlights-held-under-faces device for ghostly effects, does more to distract from than to enhance the visuals. Ditto Charlotte Palmer-Lane’s uninspiring early 19th-century garments for the historical period, and her lackluster modern duds for the latter-day scenes.
No one is credited for the sound design, which sometimes plays contemporary recordings at full volume, and sometimes plays offstage period music at barely audible levels. And there’s little to be said for the venue’s mediocre acoustics, which give the voices a hollow, slightly echoing effect, sometimes muffling the words.
Arcadia is a tough enough nut to crack for the foremost actors and directors. Bedlam’s revival is an object lesson in what happens when those involved lack the artistic strength to squeeze the nutcracker all the way.
West End Theatre
263 W. 86th Street, NYC
Through December 10, 2023
Photography: Ashley Garrett