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Stoppard's Coolly Clever 'Arcadia'

By Lloyd Rose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 20, 1996; Page D01

The early scenes of Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia," which opened last night at Arena Stage, are civilized and delightful, but not very lively. Though the characters -- some from the present, some from 1809 -- talk, and talk well, on such varied subjects as mathematics, scholarship, poetry, chaos theory and landscape design, there's not much dramatic force to their conversations. But the play deepens emotionally as the evening goes on, and Douglas C. Wager's affectionate direction brings out all its poignancy.

Thirteen-year-old Lady Thomasina Coverly (Wendy Hoopes), Stoppard's heroine in the 19th-century part of the play, is a mathematical prodigy who discovers both the Second Law of Thermodynamics -- which decrees the eventual death of the universe through loss of heat -- and the roots of chaos theory -- which suggests there may be an alternative to the doomed-to-freeze script of the scientific determinists. It is the former, sadder discovery from which Wager takes his tone. In his hands, the play is a bittersweet poem about futility, missed chances, loss and the ultimate unknowability of anything or anyone.

Though put together in a rather complicated manner, "Arcadia" is easy enough to follow when you're watching it. In 1809, Thomasina, her tutor, Septimus Hodge (J. Paul Boehmer), the very, very minor poet Ezra Chater (David Marks), Thomasina's mother, Lady Croom (Tana Hicken), and an offstage Lord Byron interact on various intellectual and physical levels.

In the present, the Coverly descendant Valentine (Alex Draper) struggles to work out a formula to predict grouse populations, while his ancestral home is poked into by a couple of scholars: Hannah Jarvis (Christina Haag), who is researching the mysterious hermit who once lived on the Coverly estate, and Bernard Nightingale (Terrence Caza), who is intent on proving Byron's connection with the Coverly family and the apparent dueling death of Chater.

Zack Brown has designed a simple, beautiful set consisting almost entirely of an exquisitely inlaid floor and a mass of blown-down spring leaves, and Paul Tazewell's costumes are, as usual, lovely. The cast is excellent, with Hoopes bringing freshness and charm to Thomasina, Michael Barry affecting in two roles as a past and present Coverly son, and solid comic performances from Marks and Hicken.

Wager seems determined not to compete with the script's manic cleverness, preferring to ground it in emotion. Still, he may have respected the play too much. Stoppard's wit and erudition are as impressive as ever. He links chaos theory with sexual desire. He uses the two time frames to make ironic jokes about historical interpretation. And his optimism is invigorating: He seems to regard curiosity as one of the virtues. But his facility undermines him here. He does too much too well, and the result is that he does nothing wonderfully.

For all its surface brilliance, "Arcadia" lacks passion and urgency. There's nothing in it like the physicist Kenner's ecstatic, semi-mystical speech on quantum theory in "Hapgood." In "Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead," the two main characters batted intellectual conceits back and forth like Ping-Pong balls, but they were also struggling to get out of an existential predicament: Who were they anyway, and why was this terrible thing happening to them? But there are scenes in "Arcadia" that you could get just as much out of from reading as from seeing acted, no matter how well. Unlike the characters in Shaw, no one in this play needs to get his or her ideas out; nothing is at stake. Despite the sorrowful sting of its last scenes, the evening is not quite a full theatrical experience. It's more like eavesdropping on a dinner party full of smart, glib, shallow, charming people.

Arcadia, by Tom Stoppard.
Directed by Douglas C. Wager. Lights, Kenneth Posner. Sound, Timothy Thompson. Original music, Jeffrey Lunden. Additional music, Dean Shostak.
At Arena Stage through Jan. 19. Call 202-488-3300.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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