Asexual British Scholars Run Wild in Stoppard's Uber-Witty 'Arcadia'

Arcadia by Tom Stoppard at the Huntington Theater Company through Oct. 6

Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia" has everything a Harvard student could want out of an evening at the theater--physics, literary theory, British accents, a battle of egos, and the efforts of academics to overcome their asexuality. The leads handle their parts well, the sets are lovely, and the sheer volumetric intensity of Stoppard's ultra-witty dialogue will intrigue, if occasionally confuse, the happy playgoer.

"Arcadia" refers to the stately pleasure dome Sidley Park, built by a shrewd but merry widow in Derbyshire, England, in 1809. Its inhabitants include her precocious daughter, Thomasina (Gretchen Cleevely), who is busily deducing the physics of heat without the use of mathematics and to the astonishment of her dashing tutor, Septimus (Conner Trinneer), a craggy landscaper who wishes to redesign Arcadia in a more gothic style, including a hermitage and a rented hermit, and Ezra Chater (Stephen Temperley), a second-rate poet. Oh, and Lord Byron also wanders about the premises, though, sadly, off-stage.

While all these characters go about their 19th-century business of leading rich British lives and seducing each other's spouses left and right, in the alternating scenes another, modern-day drama is underway in the same house. Two academics, Hannah Jarvis (Kandis Chappell) and Bernard Nightingale (Terence Caza), are busy combing through the library looking for evidence about why Byron left England in such a god-awful hurry, how the tutor Septimus may have been involved, the identity of the rent-a-hermit, and who, exactly, Ezra Chater was. As they work through these various literary-historical mysteries, they also flirt with the waspish residents of the house, Valentine and Chloe Coverly (Willis Sparks and Annika Peterson). Oh, and a mute kid wanders about the premises. Sadly, he is mostly on stage.

The play alternates between the two time periods and their respective plots. As the modern-day scholars try to deduce what was going on at Sidley Park in the 19th century, the audience is simultaneously watching that plot as it is carried out. Issues of truth, knowledge, accuracy and relativism get very complicated and, well, postmodern. All of which is stimulating, analytically speaking, but it can get dizzying as theater. Thankfully, there is enough good, old-fashioned sexual intrigue in both plots to keep the audience interested, even when the verbal dueling gets ridiculously complex. The script is also full of vicious one-liners. When the nubile and conniving Chloe is rejected by her would-be prey, another character remarks: "I wouldn't worry about Chloe. She's old enough to float on her back."

The principal actors handle their roles with plenty of energy, and keep this intricate vessel moving smoothly forward. Conner Trinneer plays Septimus with a charming cockiness, blended with tenderness for his 13-year-old charge, and the tutor becomes the most sympathetic figure in the play, despite his extensive philandering. Gretchen Cleevely plays the wise child with a sort of Margaret O'Brien chirpiness, which is distracting, but not excessively so; more troubling are the scenes toward the end of the play, which seem to propose the 16-year-old Thomasina as a potential sexual partner for her adult tutor. Granted, this was more appropriate in the 19th century, but Cleevely's mannerisms do not change enough in the later scenes to make her seem older than 13; as a result, these scenes leave the audience a bit itchy.

Terrence Caza is blusteringly appealing as the sexist, willful Bernard Nightingale, who goes to the press with his theories about Byron, rather than publishing in an academic journal. Nightingale's character is a bit of an anachronism, and makes the play seem to be set in the 1980's, rather than the present day, as the mention of quarks and other such scientific developments would imply.

As Hannah Jarvis, Kandis Chappell is the darkest of the modern characters; but her role consists of little more than pointing out Nightingale's faults, while her own mysterious past is occasionally hinted at but never revealed. Her inscrutability is interesting, but leaves Chappell with rather little to work with. Her performance is solid and smooth, and at the very least her accent is convincing and lowkey.

Other characters seemed similarly underdeveloped, especially the frustrated scientist played by Wallis Sparks in the modern-day scenes. His prattling about his theories gets confusing, and though some sexual chemistry between him and Hannah is promised, it is never delivered. This is a shame, because Sparks has, to his credit, an engaging clarity, magnetism and blonde, shampoo-ad good looks, and he flounders a bit in this muddy role.

As for the minor characters, the problems lie mainly in the accents. Lady Croom (Linda Gehringer), Thomasina's mother, pronounces her humorous lines with an artificial shrillness, which lessened the sheer fun of watching her tyrannize the household. Captain Brice, RN (Anthony Newfield) is visually hysterical, wearing a hat the size of Derbyshire, but the play would benefit--epecially in terms of running time--if incidental characters like his were given fewer lines.

The actors are given a lovely set on which to perform, designed by Karl Eigsti. The elaborate facade of a huge garden room is a complement to the discussion of art and genre which proceeds within, what with its Roman arches, paired columns a la Michelangelo, and huge French doors one could imagine at Versailles. Most intriguing of all, a huge gleaming bronze pendulum swings slowly and mesmerizing lyacross the stage as the audience takes its seat, but disappears by the time the curtain raises for the first act. The image of that swinging ball remains impalpably, and the presence of the ominous pendulum may be felt long after it is gone.

Other details, like the music played in the last scene and the stylized speed with which the curtains are dropped and raised, add polish to the production. The only unprofessional note is the odd moment right before the play in which an employee from the theater comes on stage and informs audience members on how to become members of the Huntington "subscriber family," rattling off a series of prices, discounts and package deals. The infomercial aspect of this interlude is uncouth, and both the Huntington representative and the audience are made uncomfortable by it.

On the whole, however, director Jacques Cartier has brought a triumphant production of Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia" to the Huntington Stage. The play's dialogue is intricate to the point of virtuosity, so much that the plottiness of the play almost seems to distract from its real virtue, the language. But audience members can enjoy both of these aspects, as well as the smooth performances, attractive sets and still more attractive cast members. The production deserves the praise it is receiving, and students should take advantage of rush discounts and see this wordy, intellectual tour de force.