The Potomac Theatre Project (PTP) has descended on Atlantic Stage 2’s subterranean bunker of a space in Chelsea for their annual repertory residency. This summer they’re presenting a British double bill of Howard Barker’s Pity In History and Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia.
Arcadia was first presented in New York in 1995 at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater. A Broadway revival was subsequently mounted in 2011. The play was justly heralded as an emotional breakthrough from the always-erudite, not-always-vulnerable Stoppard. It’s easy to see what motivated the PTP to mount this witty play in 2017. Arcadia is an unexpectedly accessible play, featuring educated and passionate characters engaged in heady discussions on a range of topics, from quantum physics to philosophy. What better time to attempt to elevate the desultory national discourse than now?
The PTP presents an inspired production featuring spare but effective staging and consistently dynamic acting. The costume design by Mira Veikley is a highlight of the production, particularly the pastel, flowing garments worn by the women. Light and film projections by Hallie Zieselman effectively augment an otherwise spartan set. A bit more visual flourish would help root the play in its genteel milieu, particularly since the story pivots between two different centuries and settings.
Amongst a memorable cast, Megan Byrne merits particular praise as Lady Croom. The impish, cute Manny Durán is the only actor to appear in both the 19th- and-20th-century storylines. With minimal dialogue, he conveys much with his agile, lithe body and doe eyes. Alex Draper is solid yet somewhat miscast in his anachronistic American demeanor as Bernard Nightingale. Stephanie Janssen is notable for her subtle strength as Hannah Jarvis. Alas, Janssen and Draper can’t quite prevent the rare lull of a scene they share toward the end of Act One. Other worthy performers include Caitlin Duffy as Thomasina Coverly, Andrew William Smith as Septimus Hodge and Steven Dykes in the twin roles of Captain Brice and Jellaby.
The play is most effective as a love letter to times past of greater civility and decorum. A heady cocktail of intellect, Arcadia crucially hots up the emotional content to offer up a play with as much warmth as any previous Stoppard offering. The play likewise provides the sort of sparkling dialogue reminiscent of Noel Coward with a touch of the socio-political observations of George Bernard Shaw. The sense of nostalgia felt by the characters is effectively mirrored to the audience.
But this Arcadia is more than mere nostalgia. This unfussy production offers up an opportunity to reevaluate the play as one of the major dramas of our time. The play’s ideas never overwhelm the plot or the characters. The production likewise allows the writing and acting to flourish.
Director Cheryl Faraone wields a sure hand, managing to smooth the seams between the two centuries portrayed in the play. She handles an ambitious script with aplomb, eliciting potent performances while keeping the pacing taut. The cast works as a remarkably intuitive ensemble, like instruments in a chamber orchestra. PTP succeeds in offering a refresher course on the sublime delights of this evergreen play.
Arcadia is at Atlantic Stage 2, 330 West 16th St. in New York City through August 6th.
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