NEW YORK – Tom Stoppard's play "Arcadia" circles round and round from past to present, and as it revolves, the characters grapple with formidable concepts: love, romance, science, Algebra, literature — and gardening.
So it makes a thematic sense, then, that the three leading men in the revival opening next week on Broadway have all at one time or another cycled through the role of the clever hero, Septimus Hodge.
Septimus is tutor to young Thomasina Coverly, a girl with boundless intelligence and wit, living in Derbyshire, England in 1809. He's a bit of a rake, with swashbuckling wit and charm, in love with the mistress of the house and fooling around with others, but he's also quite earnest. Other characters live in the present day and the scenes go back and forth between centuries, unraveling the mystery of what happened in-between.
Tom Riley plays the role in the current iteration. Billy Crudup originated the role on Broadway in 1995 and is now playing Bernard Nightingale, a deliciously condescending scholar searching for a Lord Byron connection to the stately English manor where Septimus and Thomasina lived, and where Valentine Coverly now lives. Valentine is portrayed by Raul Esparza, who played Septimus in a production in Troy, Mich.
"On the page he appears quick, charming, a grinning smiling Cheshire cat with a raised eyebrow," Riley said of the role of Septimus. "But the more you delve into it, the more complex and deep it becomes."
Not unlike the play itself. Like most things Stoppard, Arcadia is a thick weave of the intellectual and the heart. It is lighthearted and funny while also deep; a bit of a sex romp while also heavy themes of mortality. And it's fast-paced, so you have to pay attention.
But if you do, it's oh so worth it, says Crudup.
"It's such an incredible gift that he gives audiences," Crudup said of the playwright. "The respect they can tolerate and enjoy a bit of concentration — it really does reap tremendous benefits."
For Crudup, who has been lauded for his stage performances as well as his films such as "Almost Famous," the role of Septimus was incredibly important for his career — it opened door after door, he said.
"It is winning the lottery," he said. "You are the conduit to the audience in one of the most interesting and ornately constructed masterpieces in the theater. It's an impressive position to be in."
Directed by David Leveaux, the play takes place in one spare room. It also stars Bel Powley as Thomasina, Margaret Colin as her mother Lady Croom, and Lia Williams as Hannah Jarvis, the author researching the gardens at the estate.
It's difficult to boil down the plot. Essentially, Hannah is researching a book on the vast gardens at the estate and a hermitage on the property. During the 1800s, a hermit actually lived in the small cottage and died there after the property was vastly renovated. Bernard is a Lord Byron scholar who visits the estate on a hunch that Byron may have fought a duel there. Valentine lives there and is a mathematician working on a complicated theory. All these mysteries lie with Septimus and Thomasina.
Books left on the table during a scene in the present remain for the past and likewise. Characters drink out of glasses and abandon them for use by others. And eventually, they appear on stage at the same time.
Stoppard himself says his opinion the play doesn't matter any more than anyone else's.
"It's a storytelling art from," he said. "You're not telling it with a primary purpose of selling your idea. It is a love story. It is a detective story. But what they all have in common is the storytelling."
Esparza, like Crudup, had a deep desire to revisit the play after he performed it nearly 15 years ago. "The first time I heard the play this time it was pretty emotional for me," he said. Septimus is so great, because he truly changes and becomes something entirely different — the ironic romantic lover turns out to be so deeply affected."
Both Crudup and Esparza approached their characters perhaps a bit differently because of their familiarity with the play. They both realized how much more there was to the play when they looked at it from a different angle.
Esparza researched the complicated math so he could really explain it with ease, and he focused on connecting with the character of Hannah. The play became an entirely different experience.
Likewise for Crudup, whose Nightingale is prim and irritated (and irritating) and smart and thickheaded, all at once. He said he really had to think about the character so he didn't mimic what he saw in his previous version, played by Victor Garber.
"The idea of playing Bernard, in the millisecond it takes to comprehend what your agent is telling you, you see 15 years of your life. I didn't realize time had passed to the extent it had," Crudup said. "It's an incredibly romantic idea for any actor, to get to do different parts of the play — this play — on Broadway."
Neither actor has imposed his opinions on Riley, for which he is grateful. The actor is making his Broadway debut, never before performing in front of an audience of a thousand. Riley's Septimus is clever and sly, slipping his lines in as one-liners, giving the audience a moment to realize, and then guffaw.
"It's really a harder role than I thought when I accepted it," he said. "It's an incredible challenge to confront that sense of mischief he has with the darker forces at play later on."
Stoppard says the character unfolded before him as he worked, he didn't plan for Septimus to be one specific way. That gives the actors room to grow it. "I think Septimus is a very moral person," he said. "But when you talk about what I envisioned ... the play proceeds from line to line. I didn't come in with any particular predispositions."
In a play full of dialogue, the final scenes are done virtually wordless, with characters from both eras on stage, dancing, and a slow sadness creeping over the audience as the mysteries are unraveled.
And if you've missed a line or two during the fast-pace of the thing, not to worry, the actors say.
As Hannah says to Valentine: "It's all trivial. ... Comparing what we're looking for misses the point. It's wanting to know that makes us matter."
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