What the Future Holds

August in New York. Early morning 80-degree temperatures that swiftly rise to the upper 90s. Sweltering subway platforms and inadequately air-conditioned trains. Wilting trees in a surprisingly green Central Park — its lawns are being carefully reseeded — and everywhere crowds: bewildered tourists slowing down frazzled New Yorkers.

The Broadway bill of fare features more revivals than originals (and at staggering ticket prices), but theaters are full nearly to capacity. And, happily, in at least two cases with good reason.

Arcadia, by Tom Stoppard (directed by Trevor Nunn), which closes this weekend at Lincoln Center (its West Coast premiere will be in October at ACT), is a complex drama of themes and ideas associated with the post-Enlightenment period of English history. Set in two time periods at a country estate, the play considers the mythical notion of the ideal in its various aspects, from gardening to mathematics to the romantic follies of Lord Byron.

In Stoppard's customarily brilliant fashion, Arcadia unfurls its themes like banners one after the other to create a colorful panoply. But unlike some of his plays (I'm thinking particularly of Artist Descending a Staircase), in which displays of wit and elaborate word games serve to stop dramatic momentum, Arcadia is a mature work from a playwright who seems to regard his intellectual obsessions with poignancy and compassion. Ironically, it's as though he has grasped the futility of trying to understand our place in the universe. But instead of finding this revelation bleak and railing against fate, he's choosing to celebrate humankind's endless struggle to comprehend. Put simply, he's allowed his trademark mind games to be transformed by love.

Arcadia opens in 1809, when the Enlightenment was giving way to the Romantic era. Set in fictional Sidley Park, the first scene introduces the Coverlys, an aristocratic family whose daughter Thomasina (Jennifer Dundas) is wrestling (successfully) with complicated mathematical theorems while her mother, Lady Croom, plans the redesign of the garden from the soothing symmetries of “naturalism” into the rustic and romantic “picturesque.”

The scene changes minimally, leaving virtually everything in place, but we hear the roar of a passing jet overhead, and the newcomers are wearing jeans. Suddenly we're in present time, and along with the current members of the Coverly family are a pair of rival literary scholars, Hannah Jarvis (Blair Brown) and Bernard Nightingale (Victor Garber), who are trying to determine, among other things, whether or not Lord Byron fought a duel and killed a nearly forgotten minor poet at Sidley Park.

The action switches back and forth between past and present. Byron remains an offstage figure while his friend and contemporary, Septimus Hodge (played by Billy Crudup in an impressive Broadway debut), tutors the young Thomasina and juggles a series of romantic liaisons. Thomasina is a brilliant and precocious student who has no idea what a “carnal embrace” is, but who may have solved the legendary mathematics puzzle known as Fermat's Last Theorem. She is also brimming with adolescent love for Septimus.

The 19th-century group plays out its intrigues, and the contemporary characters attempt to ferret out the truth of what happened in this small backwater of the English literary landscape. It's a mystery reminiscent of the A.S. Byatt novel Possession. While the scholars jockey for publication honors, Valentine Coverly, Sidley Park's heir and a distinguished mathematician in his own right, tries to determine how much Thomasina could actually have understood of the solution to Fermat's problem, given that proof has existed only for the last 20 years.

As Stoppard draws us more and more deeply into the various mysteries, he undermines the play's expected romantic connections and focuses on what seems to be his own true love, the urgent need to understand. Gently he draws the two time frames together, allowing the groups to intermingle and, while categorically stating that “we're doomed,” finishes with a graceful waltz danced by a pair of unlikely couples. It's a dazzling, rewarding play, an ideal valentine (there are no accidents in Stoppard) for the intellect. I can't wait to see it again.

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying was a Broadway blockbuster when it was first produced in 1961, making an overnight star of Robert Morse, and it is no less today. This sly, winning comedy (book by Abe Burrows, music and lyrics by Frank Loesser) about an ambitious young man's effortless rise to the top of the corporate tree seems more timely than ever. Expertly directed by Des McAnuff and choreographed by Wayne Cilento, it's funny, fast-paced, and exhilarating. John Arnone's sets, which are imaginatively enhanced by computer graphics, add an intriguing new twist.

This, by the way, is the same team that staged The Who's Tommy, which played at the War Memorial Opera House last year. While that production seemed to lumber under the weight of its own presumed significance, this one has everything going for it.

J. Pierpont Finch (Matthew Broderick), whom we meet as a window washer, is hellbent on success. He has a handy guidebook titled, aptly enough, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. As narrated by Walter Cronkite in a voice-over, each chapter suggests a strategy that, of course, Finch follows to the letter. Along the way he meets his lady love, Rosemary (Megan Mullally), an executive secretary who's chosen her profession as a way of landing the man of her dreams. Finch also encounters the boss, J.B. Biggley (Ronn Carroll), and Biggley's sniveling nephew, Bud Frump (Jeff Blumenkranz), each of whom he outmaneuvers.

This is an unabashed cartoon played in '60s period dress (costumes by Susan Hilferty), so that its outdated and sexist ideas (remember when being a secretary was the exclusive domain of women?) couldn't possibly be taken seriously. But the use of projections and animation, in which we zoom up close to background scenes as though we're in a helicopter, makes this show one of the most up-to-date on Broadway.

It also has a spectacular cast, headed by Broderick as Finch. Broderick is crisp in his timing and playful in his singing, so that classics like “I Believe in You” and “Brotherhood of Man” are still showstoppers. He gets splendid support from the entire cast, but especially Mullally as Rosemary; Victoria Clark as Smitty, Rosemary's pal; Carroll as Biggley; and the sensational Lillias White as Biggley's secretary, Miss Jones. White's gospellike solo in “Brotherhood” brings the house down. Not bad for a sultry August night in New York City.

Arcadia closes Aug. 27 at New York's Lincoln Center. The American Conservatory Theater will present the play's West Coast premiere beginning Oct. 18 at the Stage Door Theatre in S.F.; call 749-2250 for subscription information. Single tickets go on sale at the end of September.

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