No, Please Do Not Add Sex To Tom Stoppard Plays

Shaun Taylor-Corbett and Caroline Grogan in Arcadia.
Photo: Ashley Garrett

It’s a red flag when a production of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia begins with a lengthy helping of the 1980s moaner “Wicked Game” as the audience sits in the dark. It’s a cover version, so it doesn’t even have the solid bass line or the whining western guitar of Chris Isaak’s original: The tempo is cranked all the way down, a piano throbs tragically, and a mezzo voice smolders and quivers through “The world was on fire and no one could save me but you.” We are headed into a play that depends on lightness and agility — that fences dazzlingly and hilariously until at last it runs you through — and the hand here could not be heavier.

The theater company Bedlam is known for its irreverently imaginative spins on classic texts both theatrical and literary, and I have long been excited by its work. More than a decade ago, I saw the company’s very first production, a thrillingly stripped down St. Joan in which four actors played all of Shaw’s 25-plus characters and the play, which is extremely talky, rocketed into full, fiery, physical life. It has taken on Shakespeare and Chekhov (sometimes at the same time), Ibsen, Jane Austen, Arthur Miller, and J. M. Barrie. It has also, in more recent years, started a reading series called “Do More: New Plays,” a meaningful response to the demand faced by canon-centered companies and a place for playwrights to “interrogate and explode the idea of a ‘classic.’” What it hasn’t done until now is tackle a play that is neither ancient nor new, where the author isn’t either dead or in the room, and where that author — and in particular the play at hand — is known both for Wildean wit and spectacular intricacies of structure.

Sadly — and it is legitimately sad — with this Arcadia, Bedlam completely misses the brief. It’s not that it has “exploded” Stoppard’s intertwining story of modern academics and early-19th-century gentry and geniuses too vigorously; it’s that the production is actually — underneath its somewhat lackluster scrappy gestural staging — a pretty straightforward take, and one that seems utterly uninterested in everything that makes the play magnificent. The easy takedown of Stoppard, especially on this side of the Atlantic, is that he’s too brainy, too show-offy, too sophisticated, too clever. It’s specious, failing to acknowledge the currents of longing, human folly, and heartbreak that run throughout his work. If you like your pathos served up like soup, Stoppard might not be your boy, but the heartbeat is there nonetheless.

It’s a trap to think that Arcadia needs you to add the human element to it, and right from his production’s opening gesture, director Eric Tucker — usually so sprightly and ingenious in his approaches to much-beloved texts — steps right into it. What the weepy strains of “Wicked Game” say to us is: “Hey, don’t worry. You may have heard that this play is difficult and smart, but it’s okay, it’s really about LOVE and SEX.” Why do we need reassuring? Certainly (along with its focus on mathematics and poetry), Stoppard’s play is interested in “carnal embrace” (“the attraction that Newton left out”) and in the much messier, much more painful, equally physics-defying things that our hearts do. But to think that to realize that, we need the show to be sexed up — more kissing, more handsiness, more performative groaning and passionate shouting — is to mistrust both audience and play.

The irony of this production’s thick layer of would-be edgy horniness is that it makes the show infinitely less sexy. Has Tucker never heard of antici … … … pation? More important, what of the things, apart from each other, that actually turn these people on? “It’s wanting to know that makes us matter,” says the researcher Hannah Jarvis (Zuzanna Szadkowski). The thrill and glory of Arcadia is in watching articulate passion unfold itself. From the brilliant teenager Thomasina Coverly (Caroline Grogan) — who, in 1809, will come to anticipate the third law of thermodynamics by wondering brightly one afternoon why “you cannot stir things apart” — to her distant relation, Valentine Coverly (Mike Labbadia), who, nearly two centuries later, is pouring his soul into iterated algorithms — these characters are filled to their fingertips with curiosity, with hunger for knowledge, with galvanizing fascination for the marvelous complexities of the world. “The unpredictable and the predetermined unfold together to make everything the way it is,” Valentine tells Hannah. “It’s how nature creates itself, on every scale, the snowflake and the snowstorm. It makes me so happy. To be at the beginning again, knowing almost nothing … It’s the best possible time to be alive, when almost everything you thought you knew is wrong.”

To listen to Labbadia deliver this speech, you’d think Valentine means “irritated” when he says “happy.” As the anxious, aspiring Cambridge postgrad, Labbadia glowers and snaps and trudges around in a dirty bathrobe, playing a first-person shooter on a handheld gaming console and sullenly bouncing a tennis ball off the wall. You imagine him sulking in a basement surrounded by pizza boxes and unwashed novelty T-shirts. It’s not unusual to interpret Valentine as neurodivergent, and when it comes to Labbadia’s standoffishness, that may be the intention here — but that should make no difference in the character’s ability to feel wonder, or, really, anything apart from annoyance.

Labbadia isn’t alone. On the whole, Arcadia’s actors, who are undoubtedly capable of more, are painting with single colors and not bright ones. Wonder is a primary component of the play — it practically runs on the electricity of discovery, the ecstasy of poetry, the distinctively human hunger for beauty. Its other engine is humor: The scenes that take place in 1809 are, for a long time, high comedy in the Oscar Wilde vein, and the play’s modern characters are no slouches in the wit department either. These are people who say things like, “Do not dabble in paradox, Edward. It puts you in danger of fortuitous wit” and — in a single breath — “There are no more than two or three poets of the first rank now living, and I will not shoot one of them dead over a perpendicular poke in a gazebo with a woman whose reputation could not be adequately defended with a platoon of musketry deployed by rota.”

If you find the play’s lift and its rhythm — the joy its characters take in speaking — 99 percent of the text becomes laugh lines. The crescendos in Tucker’s production, when they come at all, tend to be generated by pique — by actors searching for a release valve in pushing, shouting, and playing the negative. Tucker has opted, as Bedlam has always done with its British imports, for the cast to use their own American accents. It’s never a problem with Shakespeare, whose language is robust and heightened enough to handle variety, and theoretically it could work here. (It has worked for the company with Shaw.) But even without the received pronunciation, class doesn’t cease to exist, and you still have to say lines like, “Personally, I think old Murray was up the pole on that one” and “No doubt they were in the cricket eleven when Harrow played Eton at Lords” — or even just “Fiddlesticks!” Accent is one thing, and affect is another. This is buoyant, intricate stuff, and trying to muscle through flattens and deflates it. In the words of the Magnetic Fields, “You can’t use a bulldozer to study orchids.”

And yet, there are times the play still makes itself heard; its beauty will out. Especially in the second act — in which, after intermission, Tucker has the audience relocate to new seats so that we’re facing the bank of red plush chairs in which we originally sat — the cast seems to breathe a little easier. When they reach exquisite gems, like the recitations of Byron by Hannah and her fellow academic Bernard (Elan Zafir), the shivers still come full force. Tucker also seems to feel more at home in this act, as he dramatizes Stoppard’s increasing overlapping of periods by having his ensemble sit spread out throughout the seating bank, passing books and apples and theodolites to one other across space and time. Directorially, he seems to have been hungering for this kind of conceptual choreography, for something to do. (This is part of the issue: He’s avoided really doing the play itself.) The flow of movement does have some life and interest to it, and it shows the company to its best advantage — and yet, as the devastating and gorgeous climax approaches, there’s too little precision, and therefore too little real pathos, for our hearts to receive the blow. That’s the masterful paradox at work in Arcadia: As Hannah, the seeming rationalist discovers, in art as in life, you need both the chaos and the order, the romantic imagination and the sublime geometry.

Arcadia is at the West End Theatre through December 23.

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