The notion that Einstein might have understood the connections that the rest of us must take on faith underlies Tom Stoppard’s engaging, enigmatic play about love and learning through the centuries. David Leveaux’s production of the 1993 puzzler at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre does little to enlighten, though much to entertain.
The action unfolds in the Derbyshire country house of Sidley Park, juxtaposing the events of 1809 with a frenetic quest in 1993 to unearth what those events really were. As the play begins, Septimus Hodge (Tom Riley), a tutor and a friend of Lord Byron, is working with his mathematically precocious pupil, the daughter of the house, Thomasina Coverly (Bel Powley). As the play progresses, we learn that Hodge, as well as several others, has been found in “carnal embrace” with the never-seen Mrs. Chater, the wandering wife of a would-be poet, and the fallout from her fling with the also-unseen guest of the house, Lord Byron, is what the 20th century academics are trying to ascertain.
In 1993, writer Hannah (Lia Williams), is researching a mysterious 19th-century figure, the hermit of Sidley Park, and sidestepping the romantic interest of Valentine Coverly (Raul Esparza), a student of mathematics. The real interplay between the two eras is set off, however, with the abrupt arrival of insidious academic Bernard Nightingale (Billy Crudup), who infiltrates the estate to research Byron’s visit – and concludes that he killed Chater in a duel.
The full plot is far more complicated, and names and period notes are dropped with an abandon that lovers of the 19th century or of modern academe will appreciate. Much has been made of the play’s erudition – thermodynamics, English gardening, fractals, chaos theory – but it’s the human complexity that can make the three-hour play ponderous.
The characters and their stories are engaging, but the under-directed performances don’t do much to hold or sustain our interest through the myriad plot shifts – or even to provide a consistent tone. Williams’ wary novelist is both charming and convincing, as is Crudup’s overconfident, ethically challenged academic opportunist, but they seem to be from entirely different plays. And while Thomasina might well be the play’s most appealing character, Powley’s one-note whining delivery, however true to the character’s 13 years of age, is grating enough to detract from the interplay between her and her sardonic tutor, which Riley hits spot-on.
What this production needs is its own unified field theory so that, even as the audience strives to put together the pieces, we can have confidence that there is a larger design. What’s here gives you the sense that there is no overarching understanding of the work, and however true that may be of the universe, it doesn’t make for an effective work of art.