A lot of theatre critics bow down to the altar of Arcadia as Tom Stoppard’s best play—probably because its time-shifting structure is just smart enough to flatter their intelligence, without actually being the kind of smart that makes them feel dumber than the playwright. (The kind, in other words, that always makes them write bad reviews.)
And while there’s no denying the play’s heady intelligence, heady is exactly the right adjective. Arcadia’s thrills are intellectual first and emotional second. Does anybody in the audience actually shed a tear at the end? You get a vision of the grand sweep of history (complete with footnotes), of things lost and found, but you don’t really mourn the loss of Thomasina. (And thematically, isn’t it the point of the play that you shouldn’t mourn individual loss?)
Indian Ink is different. The smartness isn’t constantly pointing to itself and crying “Look at this, isn’t it brilliant?” You get a vision of one woman’s life (complete with footnotes), of things lost and found, and you actually do mourn the loss of the main character, even though the set up, a time-shift between the 1930’s and the 1980’s, tells you right from the start that she’s a goner. It’s a culture-clash story that is very casual and breezy, very conversational instead of rhetorical, but it has the potential to break your heart. And in the current Roundabout production, it does.
The plot is simple: female British poet journeys to India for her health, and along the way gets her portrait done by a local painter. Two portraits, actually. Out of this, Stoppard manages to comment on colonialism, cultural appropriation, the difference between a revolution and a mutiny, politics, feminism, sex, passion—you know, all that good stuff which never seems to make an appearance in modern American plays. (Speaking of which, the sole academic in the play is an American, which—in British Playwright Shorthand—makes him the asshole.)
The script has been touched up and tightened a little for this production. The acting adds depth and reality to the cleverness of the lines. Romola Garai plays Flora Crewe, journeying through India and writing letters to her socialist sister around the time of Gandhi’s Salt March. She plays the part so well that you will want to Google Flora Crewe to see if any of her poetry books are still in print. Rosemary Harris, who plays the surviving sister, can do this kind of thing in her sleep—and because she’s Rosemary Harris, that never happens. And Firdous Bamji is superb as a painter divided between his love of English culture and his own national heritage.