Arcadia; Play On! Theater; Through February 21

Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia is an unusual choice for Play On! While the play may be far from agit-prop or avant garde, it ain’t Moss Hart. It’s a challenge. Stoppard has always written as if to show how clever he is, and damn if he doesn’t succeed at every turn, decade after decade. Play On! risks the Thoroughly Modern Millie crowd with a script about quantum theory, chaos, sociology and Romantic poetry. Perhaps as a salve, it also has plenty of sex jokes.
 

Septimus Hodge (Sam Reeder) berates his nemesis Eza Chater (Nick Heiderstadt) in Tom Stoppard’s sprawling Arcadia, which incorporates quantum theory, chaos, sociology and Romantic poetry.

At rise, it’s 1809; a neoclassical den in the English countryside where Septimus Hodge (Sam Reeder), a charming pal of Lord Byron, is tutoring young Thomasina Coverly (Josephine Stewart). In time we meet a flock of acquainted writers and lovers, all attempting to be friendly while also sleeping around and competing for artistic fame. Rivalries are defined, history is made.
 
Scene two: 1993, same location. Three academics, each familiar with a different facet of the house’s notorious past, have come to prove their outlandish theories. Like the objects of their studies, these modern characters have their own selfish goals, egos, desires for “carnal embrace,” and competitive natures. And so it goes, as each scene goes back to the other time period to catch up on new revelations of the congruent lives.
 
Stewart’s job is tough: She plays the actual genius in a house of adults who think themselves brilliant, while also coming across as naive to her elders. She’s a treasure, offering an almost effortless performance in a cast of skilled artists. Reeder, as Hodge, is dashing and vocal, but suffers from the mannerisms of a doubtful actor: wandering feet, extraneous movements. Once the evening is running along at a steady trot, his confidence kicks in and the performance improves. Hodge’s daft nemesis, Ezra Chater (Nick Heiderstadt), is pleasant and blustery, with his face drowning in a mess of a collar.
 
Robert Wray, as modern professor Bernard Nightingale, is animated and neurotic, which might have been distracting if it weren’t also an understandable acting choice. Broocks Willich, playing contemporary scholar Hannah Jarvis, is fascinating, subtle and strong, a key foil to the meandering Nightingale.
 
What can be said of the scenery, lighting, directing is that I didn’t notice them. That’s a high compliment. With a script like Arcadia, the real struggle is to not sideline the words and structure by imposing too much. Director John Holdren is wise to serve the script with skill instead of flair.
 
Oddly, the script uses costuming—designed here by Holdren’s wife Tricia and daughter Sara—to present a sobering message about being content with our microscopic role in the universe. Not much changes. 

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