By ERIC GRODE
Early in Arcadia, Tom Stoppard’s beguiling mashup of academic one-upsmanship, fractals, Lord Byron, landscape gardening, Fermat’s last theorem, duels, chaos theory and a handful of other matters, a 19th-century tutor named Septimus Hodge stares at a tortoise that lives in the country house where he is employed. Then he orders it to sit.
Tom Riley, the rising British actor who plays Septimus in the current Broadway revival of the 1993 play, recalls asking Stoppard about the nuances of this command. “I said to him, ‘Is the idea that I’ve just given this speech about free will and self-determination, and then I see the tortoise move and I stop it moving? Is that the joke?’ And he said, ‘Mmmmm, I’m not really interested in the deep stuff. I just think you should say “Sit” to the tortoise like you’re saying it to a dog.’
“I find it interesting that he had university lecturers address the cast of the original production,” Riley continues. “Now he just says, ‘Make the joke funnier.’”
This focus on the more accessible elements of Stoppard’s initially forbidding text is a priority both for Stoppard and for director David Leveaux, who directed a well-received revival of the play last year in London and has recast it entirely for the New York run, which opens March 17 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. Aside from Tony nominee Lia Williams (Skylight), the only British actors are Riley and Bel Powley, who plays Septimus’s precocious young pupil, Thomasina Coverly. (The 13-year-old Thomasina essentially invents/discovers at least two of the things listed above.)
Powley, 19, wanted a rudimentary background in the mathematical and scientific theories that Thomasina discusses so adroitly. “My first concern was that I needed to understand everything I was saying before I could begin to think of relationships or characters or anything else," she says.
Riley adds, “We tried to get a handle on Fermat’s last theorem as much as you can as a layman as opposed to an academic. But actually, although I agree with Bel to a point, understanding the theories to the nth degree mattered less to me than understanding how those theories affect the relationships in the play.”
For Riley, mastery of the time-hopping text has been an ongoing process. “I would hope that I don’t completely get it until the final week,” he says, “because I hope to be adding to it as I go.” Both agree that Stoppard's presence in first week of rehearsals was invaluable on this score.
Another potential resource for Riley, 29, is Billy Crudup, who originated the role of Septimus on Broadway in 1995. For this production, Crudup has fast-forwarded 200 years to play Bernard Nightingale, one of the historians squabbling over the information (and misinformation) that has accrued around the earlier era depicted.
So far, however, this resource has remained untapped. “Any tips Billy would have given me, I would have leapt on,” Riley says. “But in addition to being a brilliant actor, Billy’s incredibly gracious. All he’s ever said has been, ‘It’s amazing to hear the words that I’ve never heard.’ Because he’d always said them instead. And actually, Raúl [fellow co-star Raúl Esparza] has played Septimus as well. I feel very lucky to have both of them in the room just in case.”
Riley says he tailors the occasional line or inflection to match the level of comprehension he gauges from any given audience: “Not in a way that offends or insults the audience, but in a way that will help the play and help us feel that we can relax into it.” Still, the chasm in intellectual ambition between <i>Arcadia</i> and most other commercial Broadway productions is not lost on Riley or any of the other actors. “Tom pays the audience a great amount of respect by saying, ‘I’ll come halfway to you and you come halfway back.’”
Eric Grode, the author of the recently released “Hair: The Story of the Show That Defined a Generation” (Running Press), was theatre critic at the New York Sun from 2005 to 2008.