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On That Time Arcadia Made Me Hate Tom Stoppard Less

(But I’m giving Tom Riley all the credit.)
(Okay. And maybe David Leveaux. And Billy Crudup. And Raul Esparza.)

My senior year of high school we read Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and it made me want to die too. Or, you know, never read Tom Stoppard again. Ever. (That play is one of two pieces of literature this big-mouthed-know-it-all has ever outright refused to discuss, debate or opine over obnoxiously. I thought my teacher/class was going to die of shock.)

In the years since high school, I have not touched a piece of work by Tom Stoppard, on Broadway, off Broadway, or anywhere else. So you can imagine my trepidation when it came time to see the revival of Acadia which opened last night at the Barrymore Theater.

But no amount of trepidation could stop me from seeing a show featuring two of my favorite actors, Raul Esparza and Billy Crudup, and I probably owe them for opening my eyes to the potential in Stoppard. Or at least for getting me over my silly grudge.

Arcadia isn’t perfect. There are still problems with the material most of which are kind of inherent in Stoppard. There’s so much dialogue—real people don’t talk this way, and they never did—and it is relentlessly cerebral to the point of insanity.
But David Leveaux has mounted a production which triumphs over the material. Indeed, it makes the material kind of triumphant. And sexy. Ridiculously, panty-knottingly sexy.

The play, set in the same room in two different centuries, explores genius and madness, history and reality, and the very human search for meaning in the structures of the world around us. It’s a complex story—loaded with dangerous shit like math and religion and gender politics—and the dialogue is sometimes difficult to keep up with. But ultimately, Arcadia succeeds thanks to the compelling performances that Leveaux’s clear, concise direction brings forth.

Tom Riley’s performance as lead Septimus Hodge is particularly remarkable. He delivers Stoppard’s tongue-twisting, witty dialogue with a thinly veiled glee and an arch eyebrow raise that makes you want to smack him around a bit—pitch perfect for the rakish Hodge. His performance is an unexpected joy to witness. In fact, surrounded by several notoriously sexy, commanding stage actors, Mr. Riley steals the show without even breaking a sweat.

That said, Billy Crudup turns in a wonderful performance as academic Bernard Nightingale; his fervent energy and powerful physical presence give Nightingale the perfect mix of douche-bag intensity and intellectual enthusiasm. Meanwhile, Raul Esparza is saddled with a far less dynamic character in Valentine Coverly, but he finds moments of inner light and heat, especially when interacting closely with unrequited love interest Hannah Jarvis (convincingly portrayed by Lia Williams).

These performances weave together to form a tapestry of remarkable vitality. Stoppard’s play itself may not be quite perfect, but perfect performances elevate the material into something truly amazing to behold. I left the theater a lot less opposed to the existence of Tom Stoppard and more than ready to pick a date to return and continue unwinding the intricacies of Arcadia.

Photo: Carol Rosegg

{ 1 comment… add one }

  • Amanda March 25, 2011, 10:54 am

    “Relentlessly cerebral to the point of insanity.”

    That about sums it up for me. Well, that and a long, detailed love letter to Billy Crudup.

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