Sunday, March 6, 2011


A former student and New York actor told me he was planning to see the current Broadway production of Tom Stoppard's Arcadia. At school, he acted in a production that I directed, rehearsal and performance moments of which remain clear and meaningful to me.
I asked him to write to me his impressions of this production.
His response has some important things to say about the actor and the audience.
(And some generous remarks about his acting teacher.)
He agreed to let me post it all.

I echo your sentiments on remembering so much of our time living & wrestling with this magnificent play. Seeing it again brought them back with such immediacy.

There is very much to admire in this production, mainly that they all understand what they're saying & are playing the play very well (which is becoming insanely rare on Broadway). As far as clarity is concerned, it's guided with a very sure hand and I was quite relieved to feel that if an audience was at least "up for" this play, they'd definitely be rewarded (more on that in a sec).

First of all, Billy Crudup is pretty brilliant as Bernard. All of the actorly delight you could imagine one can squeeze out of being as truly awful (and delightfully funny) as Bernard & then just when you least expect it, he has a truly astonishing moment in Act II. After they've all ripped his lecture to shreds, he's got that great retort about not confusing progress with perfectability. And then he gets into the "triviality of the speed of light" & mourning Aristotle's cosmos & I kid you not, you can feel so VISCERALLY what's been lost in the march. & THEN he starts in on "She walks in beauty..." & you want to weep. He really takes his time, and it is so gentle & brimming with love & respect for poetry & beauty (coming out of Bernard's mouth!!) that the truth of it just shuts everybody up completely. ... & then (of course) he has to dig on his way out "What is it that you're doing with grouse, Valentine?" & oh man, does it STING. Because he's sorta RIGHT. It's a masterful sequence, and so perfectly pitched so that we get Bernard in a way I hadn't been totally convinced was possible. It's really remarkable.

But what I mentioned earlier about being "up for the play", is where I felt the production could use to take a big generous step forward. Right now, it almost feels like the company is expecting an audience who is "up for it", and they're missing that key element you always had us striving for, which I can't quite put into words, but is possibly creating an "active complicity" in the audience. I remember we struggled with this a bunch, and I think what it often came down to was figuring out a way to get the audience to participate and delight in your character's perspective/dilemma/sense of humor in a visceral way. I'll never forget what you taught us (and I've used it so very many times, and i THANK YOU FOREVER for it), when you asked us to imagine the house filled with people who share our character's sense of humor, and then score points with them. It's really kinda magical when an actor does it. Their confidence is boosted, they aren't working as hard, and they delight in appealing to your complicity, which makes you instantly lean forward. You're "up for" the play, because they make you a vital part of it.

It's the difference between Septimus getting himself out of hot water with Ezra Chater, and Septimus getting himself out of hot water with Ezra Chater while simultaneously insulting him to an outrageous degree, AND getting him to think he's his best friend AND, oh yeah, by the way, being eminently, spontaneously quotable all at once! Why else say such things to Ezra Chater if you're not also WISHING someone were there (a third person: THE AUDIENCE) to witness how deftly you manage your predicament? And then if you have two, three, four, five characters all vying for the audience's complicity, then it's absolute fireworks are all over the place. They could use some more of this. It all hums along very nicely, but not all of the moments that should sing (as Bernard's does) do.

The set is pretty stark: beige & so enormously high and wide that it feels museum-y, so that's not helping. But, Billy is there & the rest of them are skating close (Septimus's "we shed as we pick up" speech is gorgeously performed). And oh man, when they get to Hannah & Septimus turning the pages of Thomasina's proof simultaneously in Sc. 7, I was a wreck (how dare anyone accuse Mr. Stoppard of being cold & cerebral!). I wish you could come in there & shake up their complacency a lil bit, and their very good show would be great.

1 comment:

  1. It's great to read a informed, closely observed account of a worthwhile production and performance that is not a professional critic's perspective. Thanks for posting.