Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia (at Shotgun Players through Jan. 27) begins with an audience teaser, “Septimus, what is ‘carnal embrace’?” Thirteen-year-old Thomasina (Amanda Ramos) asks that of her 22-year-old tutor (Max Forman-Mullin). As her elder, and a family employee, Septimus deftly deflects her innocent question. With this introduction, the playwright means to have the provocative subject of sex hanging in the atmosphere between them. But in this cosseted production that runs over three hours, six years after A.C.T. took it on, there isn’t a chaste kiss to be had — let alone a carnal embrace. Whatever chemistry Stoppard means to imply, it isn’t developed here. When the script later “ages” Thomasina by three years, it only allows her a single waltz with the object of her affection.
But Patrick Dooley, the director, doesn’t linger over the expression of a 16-year-old’s mild flirtation with her teacher. Nor do we have any palpable sense if her feelings are reciprocated. The inequities that exist between them in 1809 — age and class — may have made such a romance taboo in real life but would make for a reasonable amount of drama on stage. Instead of advancing their questionable liaison, the spotlight shines on another couple, Hannah (Jessma Evans) and Bernard (Aaron Murphy). In a parallel storyline that takes place two centuries later, they bicker and disagree. Hannah and Bernard are like characters that have been extracted from a sitcom, or in this case, a highly sophisticated Britcom. Everyone but the protagonists can see how hot they are for each other. Except, as Evans plays Hannah, there’s no spark for her, not even a cold flame.
Murphy gives a spirited performance. As Bernard, his indefatigable energy is still puppyish even in middle age. He tries, naughtily and inappropriately, to get a reaction out of her. When he doesn’t, he turns his randy attentions elsewhere. But Stoppard has paired them as intellectual equals, in the same way that he’s paired Thomasina and Septimus. By doing so, Bernard and Septimus’ other lovers never register in any meaningful way. As supporting characters, they’re introduced as nonentities and stay that way. Hannah justifiably rejects a cad like Bernard but she also rejects a decent man, too. Why? Her psychology, and the motivations of the rest of the cast, remain largely unexplored.
Stoppard is seeking grander themes, ones that will resonate across time between the two couples, who are never coupled in the first place. Because each member of this quartet is a thinker, writer, mathematician, or philosopher, Arcadia necessarily becomes an intellectual love story — one that takes place between great minds and not one that involves the messy complications that result from physical contact. Since falling in love or resisting lust isn’t really on the agenda, the dramatic conflict turns on a literary mystery that, after a couple of hours, comes to feel both parodic and then like a pointless diversion, especially in the case of a subplot involving the minor character Ezra Chater (Justin DuPuis).
In Possession, the author A.S. Byatt pursued a plot line adjacent to Stoppard’s in her Booker Prize-winning novel from 1990. Two sets of lovers also “meet” two centuries apart via a trove of unearthed papers. Byatt’s book, though filled with digressions, at the very least, keeps all of its characters on comparable stumbling grounds, whether they’re exchanging impassioned epistles or embraces. The melodramatic past corresponds with the melodramatic present in her fictional worlds. Stoppard jams his plot with so many literary references and scientific theorems that the play starts to become airless, claustrophobic, heavy.
Individually, that makes for four articulate, often verbose, characters, any one of whom could merit an entire evening devoted to their eloquence and innovative gray matter. At the turn of the 19th century, Thomasina has put forward a hypothesis that only computers would be able to calculate and prove. Septimus is a good teacher who acknowledges his student’s genius. But he’s even better at convincing a cuckolded husband that he’s not to blame for his wife’s infidelity. In the present, Hannah has written a best-selling novel that Bernard, a snooty academic, tore to pieces in a book review. All the ideas, his ideas, her ideas, bounce about on stage like a hundred and one rubber balls let loose at once. You watch them move up and down, tracking the motion of each one, but the overall effect isn’t harmonious or engaging. It’s exhausting. And, like Thomasina’s advanced notion about entropy, you can’t wait for them all to come to a halt.
Arcadia, through Jan. 27, at Shotgun Players, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley. $7–$52; 510-841-6500 or shotgunplayers.org