When I’m watching really good theater — or, well, less pretentiously, when I’m watching really engaging theater — I stop breathing. I’m not sure whether I forget to breathe, or make a subconscious decision not to breathe because breathing makes me feel like I’m punching holes in the fourth wall, but anyway I start feeling lightheaded and that’s when I remember to start breathing again. Or if there’s a joke, because then I have to breathe in order to laugh. Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia is very funny, and in the first scene I was laughing so much my stomach hurt, but the play gets sad later on. I wanted to give it a standing ovation at the end, but I (a) was sitting in the very front row of the lower mezzanine, which meant I didn’t have to stand up just because other people were (when I can regularly have theater seats that permit this, I will know I have Arrived); and (b) felt dizzy from having held my breath for the last minute and a half.
A few weeks ago I went to see Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, with Robin Williams (this post is making my life sound so much more glamorous than is really the case), and although it had excellent moments, overall I thought it used big, dramatic events as a cut-rate way of getting emotional responses that the writing, plot, and characters didn’t merit. Whereas Arcadia does just the opposite. It has an elaborate, well-managed plot, interesting (apart from Chloe) characters, and writing that makes me rethink my long-held position that “the dialogue crackles” is a stupid turn of phrase. It takes tiny, insignificant objects and events and gives the characters (and the audience) a tremendous investment in them. A pencil portrait and a lit candle brought tears to my eyes in the final scene.
I’m not describing the final scene, although I want to. I’ve made this distinction before, I believe: I am mad about factual spoilers (X dies, Y and Z marry), but I want to discover the emotional beats for myself. I’ll just say, the final scene of Arcadia can hardly be described in words other than “heartbreakingly lovely.” Please read it, or if you are in New York, go see it! It is worth it, worth it, worth it! Just for the last scene it’s worth it. I’m going again in May. Don’t judge.
Billy Crudup, the reason I went to see the production (that is such a lie, I’d have gone to see it if Robin Williams had played Bernard Nightingale — or no, maybe not — well, yes, I probably would have), played Bernard Nightingale as a semi-caricature of an academic. It was extremely funny, because you’ve had that professor, but there was something slightly insincere about the way Crudup played the part. I’m having trouble making the distinction between the insincerity the character possesses, and the insincerity of the way Crudup played the part, and where the problem was. I think it’s this: Bernard-the-character treats academia as a rhetorical game he’s playing, but a game in which he has (however much he jokes about it) a serious stake. Crudup’s Bernard lacks the stake. It’s insincerity all the way down.
This, plus the gaspy Lia Williams, who subscribes to the gasp-emote-repeat style of dialogue delivery as Hannah (shouldn’t Hannah be brisk?), rendered the modern sections of the play less satisfying than they might otherwise have been. Fortunately they had Raul Esparza playing Valentine, making longish expository speeches about science resonate (his Valentine has a stake in it, and it shows). Then, too, the payoff of the modern scenes is not, as in the scenes set in the 1800s, the relationships between the characters, but rather the solving of the mystery of the past. This aspect of the play could not have been written or staged to better effect. As Hannah tells Valentine, “It’s the wanting to know that makes us matter.”
Tom Riley was absolutely superb, flawless, ideal, as Septimus Hodge. I worried at the beginning that he and Thomasina were too shouty, and Thomasina was, but about him I shouldn’t have had a moment’s concern. Septimus is the play’s center – the Byron connection, the turtle owner, the genius (-spotter) of the house of Sidley, the wry un-self-pitying lover of Chater and Croom – and Riley carries it all off with quiet humor. He’s making jokes to himself, not to the audience, and that is why they’re funny. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway because I’d have forgiven him anything after the last scene (I can’t describe it, there’s no use asking me to describe it; if describing it did it justice I’d have been gushing like this after reading the play).
(What’s that you say? I was gushing like this after reading the play? Okay, yes, I was, but not about that final scene.)
Thomasina, on the other hand, is a little shrill. I was glancing back at my post on reading Arcadia, and I am unduly pleased with myself by something I said in a comment: “Every time I read this play, I think it would be so easy to play Thomasina shrill, for laughs. She’s a funny character, but she’s only funny as long as the actress playing her commits to playing it straight.” Solid call, Past Jenny! Bel Powley plays Thomasina shrill, for laughs. The writing carries her, or Septimus does, but it would have been far better if the actress had committed to playing her straight, without the cartoony hand-waving. I know that it would have been better because she dispensed with the shrillness and excessive hand gestures in the last scene, and it was better to a factor of infinity.
I’m going again. I don’t care! I’m going again, if I can in any way afford to. I have to see this play again. Also, if anyone reading this happens to be in charge of the universe, I want The Invention of Love to be revived. I would go see it no matter what it cost, probably twice, and I would tell my friends about it. Promise!
Going to see good theater in New York City ranks very high on Bentham’s hedonic calculus (first encountered in this book, wow, ages ago). Intensity, or strength of pleasure, very high. Duration, three hours or so, better than most pleasurable things, right, so let’s call it pretty high. Certainty (that it will be pleasurable), pretty solid if you’re me and are addicted to live theater. Propinquity, just across town. Fecundity (likeliness to recur), excellent, and the more theater I see the more I want to see, so this gets better as it goes. Purity (meaning, you won’t feel shitty afterwards — binge-drinking rates low on purity), excellent, I am still buzzing from Arcadia. Extent (how many people share in the pleasure?), superb, a whole theater full of people will share it with you. By contrast, cooking dinner rates pretty low. Intensity is low, duration is low, propinquity and fecundity good, purity medium, extent poor, and certainty very poor indeed. If I starve to death in New York City it’ll be because I spent my money on theater tickets instead of groceries.