Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Indian Ink, or, Arcadia Without The Lectures

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.
And yes, the play is full of laughs, and no, it’s not Arcadia, but that’s a good thing, because in this production, it’s the one thing Arcadia isn’t: in the end, it’s moving.  It’s touching.  You really get a sense of loss.   And you’ll get a bigger one if you don’t see it.


Molly said...

Indeed. What he said. This review is true so everyone should go see this while you have a chance. Which is only through November 30th, so get ye to the Roundabout!

daniel said...

I worshipped Stoppard from high-school for a good 15 years. "Travesties" with John Wood? You're the top! Doing that monologue from "Newfoundland" was one of the joys of B.U. And then I saw "The Real Thing" (the original) on Broadway and (sacrilege!) I'd had it. The patting on the back and the aren't-we-clever had killed my love. Yeah yeah-I know-heartbreak and an inability to express deeper feeling masked by overly cerebral dialogue. Blow me. I sat next to my ex while she was just thwacked by "Arcadia" and I found it an interesting exercise but except for Jennifer Dundas I was not (in the words of Harold Arlen) 'taken where I wanted to be took-needed to be took'. I would have skipped Indian Ink if it wasn't for a massive push by someone I respect who said (before it opened) GO. Well-first of all; he knows his India. He got it right. All the variants of the speech and the relationships. And it was moving and grounded in behavior and oh-my-lord, FEELINGS. The flaw in the production is that it was unevenly cast-there were tippy-top performances and just slogging. But what was always missing (in the words of Nuke: "Is someone gonna get laid here or what?") in Stoppard was heat. And ladies and germs that was here from the git-go and in all variants. Literal, intellectual, and good-god-a-mighty erotic. I would have lost the 'rassa' stuff. Nothing needed to be explained; not with those two leads. When he made the move toward her - and remember we're talking THREE STEPS and getting nowhere nearer than 15 feet away - well-if there's a more explicit graphically sexual moment happening in the NY theatre right now, I don't know what. And this all leads to that performance by Firdous Bamji. He has that physical roundness, that softness that is considered the most sexy of physical types in India and confusing to the western idea. And he's NEVER clever. Smart-angry. But never clever. Clever wears him out. And she knows it because it wears her out-she's had it with clever: "Please don't be so Indian". It it the most exciting performance on a stage now. When he drops the reference to having been married-it's an earthquake in her. At the speed of thought. He has crossed the line into actual sexuality rather then a question in her mind. He makes love to woman. And her temperature rises in a flash, as it does, and right from the part of her where it should. He is magnificent. Heat. At last in Sir Tom's New York work; Heat.