The Studio Theatre production of "Indian Ink," which opened Sunday, is a gracious, civilized charmer, a delight. Director Joy Zinoman has transferred British dramatist Tom Stoppard's radio play about the Raj to the stage beautifully, aided by set and lighting designers Russell Metheny and Joseph Appelt, costumer Helen Q. Huang, composer Ronobir Lahiri and a wonderful cast.
Like "Arcadia," "Indian Ink" takes place in two time periods--India in the 1930s, and India and England in the mid-'80s. In the '30s, we follow the adventures of poet and free spirit Flora Crewe (Isabel Keating) as she travels in India, beguiling every man she meets.
Flora flirts outrageously with a prince (Rajesh Vidyasagar) and spars romantically with an English military official (Rufus Collins). But her most complex relationship is with Nirad Das (Faran Tahir), a widower who paints her portrait.
Meanwhile, back in the present, earnest scholar Eldon Pike (Hugh Nees) interviews Flora's sister Eleanor Swan (June Hansen), seeking help for his annotated version of Flora's letters. Eleanor is also visited by Das's son, Anish (Lahiri), who is in search of his late father's portrait of Flora.
Complicated though this may sound, it all coheres shimmeringly, with past and present fading into and mirroring each other. Among other things, the play is Stoppard's take on biography--its easy assumptions and inevitable inaccuracies. Silly Pike believes the ultimate "truth" is in the picky factual details he appends to Flora's letters. At one point Zinoman has him insert himself impetuously between Flora and the audience: Pike wants to make sure we get the real story, which is of course the one he's telling.
In contrast to Pike's pin-things-down footnotes, the past and present that Stoppard shows us reflect and enlarge each other. The usual literary piece about the unknowability of truth is downbeat, a warning. But Stoppard, frisking through imprecisions and confusions, likes the ambiguity, the impossibility of any final and limiting interpretation.
Stoppard's view of the British occupation of India, of the ironic give and take among cultures, is intellectually sharp but emotionally benign. "Indian Ink" isn't an angry play. Stoppard's sunny nature has earned him a certain amount of disdain from more politically committed, pessimistic theater artists. But even a despairing leftist like Harold Pinter has enjoyed the occasional game of cricket with Stoppard, and this production demonstrates why. The evening is comparable to a comfortably informal, exquisitely catered dinner party with the most companionable host imaginable.
The ensemble cast is uniformly wonderful--particularly Tahir's diffident painter, Vidyasagar's witty takes on the roles of the '30s rajah and his modern descendant, Nees's obtuse but ultimately likable scholar, and Collins's engagingly stuffy official. The long-limbed Keating is a blithe, winning Flora, sexy, flirtatious and smart. And Hansen, as the crotchety sister, is simply delicious, hitting her consonants with a resounding whack that knocks the lines over the fence. "She used them like batteries," she says of Flora's men. "When things went flat, she put in a new one."
The play runs a little long but it's an enjoyable longness. It was said of Oscar Wilde that his talent went into his plays and his genius into his conversation. With Stoppard the distinction is immaterial: The conversational wit and intimacy of his plays are their genius.
Indian Ink by Tom Stoppard. Directed by Joy Zinoman. Sound, Gil Thompson; props, Sue Senita Bradshaw; dialect coach, Elizabeth Van Den Berg. With Ravi M. Khanna, Sanjiv Jhaveri, Sean T. Krishnan, Wayne Jordan, Corrie James, Scott Griswold, Diane Cummings, Elizabeth Andrews, Dan Via, Pierre E. Anthony, Saji Prelis. At the Studio Theatre through Oct. 17. Call 202-332-3300.
CAPTION: Isabel Keating as a free spirit with an elusive story in Tom Stoppard's "Indian Ink," at Studio.
CAPTION: June Hansen, as the free-spirited heroine's crotchety sister, knocks her lines over the fence in "Indian Ink," at Studio Theatre.