Monday, October 20, 2014

Double Stoppard: India Ink and The Real Thing

Rosemary Harris, Bhavesh Patel and Romola Garai in Indian Ink  (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Indian Ink is one of the few plays by the staggeringly prolific Tom Stoppard that never made it to New York in the aftermath of its West End run, so the Roundabout Theatre’s decision to mount it in its smallest (off-Broadway space), the Laura Pels Theatre, is a happy one for theatregoers. I can’t think why it didn’t open in Manhattan in the nineties (it was staged in London in 1995), especially since Arcadia, written two years earlier, was so successful there. Perhaps potential producers thought they were too similar – though that’s not generally a reason for withholding a new play that follows a well-received one. (Quite the opposite.) In Arcadia a pair of contemporary academics try to determine the events that occurred on an English country estate in 1809 where Lord Byron may or may not have been one of the house guests, while we see what really happened, the truth that the scholars can only guess at. In Indian Ink, an English professor named Eldon Pike annotates a new edition of the work of a poet, Flora Crewe, long dead, whose younger sister Eleanor – now an old woman – constitutes her only remaining family. Hopeful about following up with a biography, he searches for one of three paintings of his subject, two of them nudes, two of them done during the few months she spent in India, mostly in Jummapur. Among the people he contacts, aside from Eleanor, are the son of the Indian painter, Nirad Das, whom Flora befriended and posed for, and the son of the local Rajah who invited her to visit him in the course of her stay. Eleanor doesn’t approve of Pike’s long-term project and in her quiet way does what she can to quietly thwart his research. “Biography,” she argues, “is the worst possible excuse for getting people wrong.” And Stoppard confirms her analysis by – as in Arcadia – showing us what really happened to Flora in India, in a series of flashbacks that place one fragment of information on top of another until, gradually, we see it all. (We also discover chapters in Eleanor’s life that we hadn’t suspected, and that explain how she began as a Bohemian, like her sister, and metamorphosed into a conservative colonial.)

The play is ingenious, lyrical and finally very affecting, and, though this may be blasphemy, I prefer it to Arcadia. I’ve seen three productions of Arcadia, including the Broadway one, and I’ve read it the script, and for me, at least, it’s never moved beyond the merely clever into the magical text many people see in it. One of my most trustworthy friends says the West End production is the best thing he’s ever seen on a stage, so perhaps I’d feel differently about the play if I’d been fortunate enough to catch the original. On the other hand, the current Indian Ink, directed by Carey Perloff (the artistic director of San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater, which co-produced with the Roundabout), is flat and a little clunky in the staging, and because it lacks a controlling hand, it doesn’t quite come together; even after you’ve matched up the pieces of the narrative, the experience of the show still feels fragmented. (To be fair, I saw it while it was still in previews, and though I would be surprised to find that that the staging had improved, the production may have found a firmer shape with repeated performances.) Yet I was entranced by the play and for days afterwards I kept rerunning it in my head.

Romola Garai and Rajeev Varma (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Two delightful actresses play the Crewe sisters, the ineffable Rosemary Harris as the elderly Eleanor and Romola Garai – best known to American audiences for portraying the grown-up version of Bryony in Joe Wright’s film of Atonement – as Flora, in the flashbacks. (Swan-like Garai looks sumptuous in Candice Donnelly’s 1930s dresses.) The other pair of doubles at the heart of the drama are Nirad Das (Firdous Bamji) and his son Anish (Bhavesh Patel), both painters by profession, who also appear in different time periods but are sometimes juxtaposed on the stage. Nirad thinks of himself as a modern Indian man but as he and Flora become friends it distresses her that he capitulates so easily to the British Raj; she likes to hear him buck against it and urges him to be himself, i.e., Indian. He teaches her the Indian concept of rasa, which means “variety” or “spice,” and she encourages him to put it in his own work – which leads him, after he has persuaded her to pose for him, to devise a second painting in the Rajasthani (traditional Indian) style that is also, however, a nude. The daring of the subject matter, and the fact that it denotes a growing intimacy between him and Flora, crossing the boundaries of class and culture, comments on the repressive nature of the Raj and, indeed, of the Victorianism still indisputably present in 1930 England and in the colonies it influences. Nirad’s second painting is simultaneously an embrace of pre-colonial Indian culture and a protest against the stifling mores of England like the ones that both Flora and Eleanor, in their own ways, are enacting. (When she wants to complain of Nirad’s Anglophilia, Flora compares him to Dr. Aziz in A Passage to India, which she says she put down in frustration. There are moments in Bamji’s performance when I thought of Victor Banerjee in David Lean’s movie of the Forster novel, and I mean that as a high compliment.) The second painting is also, of course, a romantic overture, one entirely unsuspected by the meticulous but unimaginative Pike.

Neal Huff is a little stiff as Pike, but the role is an uphill battle for an actor because Stoppard mainly uses him satirically; Pike’s notes, which he sometimes delivers to the audience, keep getting everything wrong. It would probably help if Huff played him more comically, as a caricature (which is how Ajay Naidu plays Coomaraswami, the president of the Theosophical Society, who meets her at the train when she arrives in Jummapur), but you can understand his impulse to humanize the character, even though Stoppard hasn’t provided the material to allow him to. The cast, which is quite good, also includes Lee Aaron Rosen as David Durance, the Assistant (the local representative of the Raj), a young man who makes a failed attempt at courting Flora, Rajeev Varma as the Rajah, Nick Choksi as Dilip, Pike’s liaison in India, and – in a bittersweet flashback at the very end of the play – Brenda Meaney as the young Eleanor (known as Nell) and Philip Mills as her English guide in India, where she has traveled to visit her sister’s grave. As in Arcadia, the untimely death of a gifted young Englishwoman – though in this case one who has received her due posthumously – is the dramatic jolt that also gives the play a special emotional resonance.

Maggie Gyllenhaal and Ewan McGregor in The Real Thing (Photo by Joan Marcus)

In the second act of Stoppard’s The Real Thing, which the Roundabout is reviving in its main (Broadway) house, the American Airlines Theatre, the main character, Henry (Ewan McGregor), a playwright, uses a cricket bat to explain to his second wife, Annie (Maggie Gyllenhaal), an actress, why he thinks a play she has brought to his attention is terrible. Annie has been supporting a young Scottish soldier thrown in the brig for staging a protest against the British military; when he writes a play she agrees to play one of the starring roles, out of solidarity. Her answer to Henry’s insistence that Brodie, the soldier, can’t write, is to accuse him of snobbery and a sort of aristocratic resistance to the upstart uneducated working-class novice who dares to ask for a place at the writers’ table: “You say he can’t write like a head waiter saying you can’t come in here without a tie.” Here’s Henry’s response:
This thing here, which looks like a wooden club, is actually several pieces of particular wood cunningly put together in a certain way so that the whole thing is sprung, like a dance floor. It’s for hitting cricket balls with. If you get it right, the cricket ball will travel two hundred yards in four seconds, and all you’ve done is give it a knock like knocking the top off a bottle of stout, and it makes a noise like a trout taking a fly . . . What we’re trying to do is to write cricket bats, so that when we throw up an idea and give it a little knock, it might . . . travel . . . (He clucks his tongue . . . and picks up the script.) Now, what we’ve got here is a lump of wood of roughly the same shape trying to be a cricket bat, and if you hit a ball with it, the ball will travel about ten feet and you will drop the bat and dance around shouting ‘Ouch!’ with your hands stuck into your armpits. (indicating the cricket bat) This isn’t better because someone says it’s better, or because there’s a conspiracy by the MCC to keep cudgels out of Lords. It’s better because it’s better. You don’t believe me, so I suggest you go out to bat with this and see how you get on. . . (He drops the script and hops about with his hands in his armpits, going ‘Ouch!’)
It’s a wonderful speech – a wonderful scene, in fact, Stoppard at his most literate and deft but also at his most personal. You feel he cares deeply about this issue: the confusion of art and politics, the leftist argument that literary skill is nothing but an upper-class calling card that writers who have mastered it can use to keep their heel on those who haven’t. (Since he’s a dramatist who has put his considerable literary skill to work on political topics – as he does in Indian Ink – you can imagine why he finds this position distasteful.) The problem with The Real Thing, which was first produced on Broadway more than thirty years ago with Jeremy Irons and Glenn Close in these roles, is that the rest of it doesn’t feel personal but merely clever.

Cynthia Nixon as Charlotte in The Real Thing (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Enormously clever: a series of riffs on the question of which is the real thing and which the imitation. In the opening scene, Charlotte (Cynthia Nixon) comes home from an alleged business trip to Switzerland to find her husband, Max (Josh Hamilton), drunk and sarcastic, bordering on belligerent. It turns out that he found her passport at home so he assumes that she was off with a lover, deceiving him. The scene, which is a witty demonstration – part Noël Coward, part John Osborne, part Harold Pinter – on how a marriage comes apart like the house of cards Max is trying to erect when Charlotte walks in the door, ends with her walking out on him after he asks, “Is it anyone I know?” and she replies tartly (and anguished), “You aren’t anyone I know.” Only in the next scene do we learn that Max and Charlotte are actors whom we were watching in the performance of an excerpt from Henry’s play (titled House of Cards), that in fact each is married to someone else – Charlotte to Henry himself, Max to Annie – and that Henry and Annie have been cheating on their spouses with each other. Scene Three dramatizes the scene where Annie comes home to Max after he’s figured out the truth. Later on, in act two, after two years have gone by and Henry and Annie are married to each other, Stoppard reprises the accusation/recrimination scene yet again, when Annie returns home from a five-week engagement in Glasgow and Henry catches her in a lie that, he thinks, proves that she’s been sleeping with her young leading man, Billy (Ronan Raftery).

Stoppard also plays the truth-or-drama trick in scenes involving Annie and Billy, two of which take place on a train, two of which include an exchange from John Ford’s ‘T is Pity She’s a Whore (in which they play incestuous lovers), two of which include the opening scene of Brodie’s political play, which they wind up performing on television. (These pairings overlap.) And in the final scene, when we finally meet Brodie (Alex Breaux), he behaves like such an entitled boor that Henry can’t believe this is the young Scot Annie met by chance on a train and was so touched by that she became drawn to his cause. Annie assures him that it isn’t – that the attention (presumably) has altered him and turned the real thing into a monstrous imitation.

But unlike Indian Ink, The Real Thing is a brilliant dramatic exercise that isn’t the real thing at all; it’s a kind of text for scholars like Eldon Pike to lay out and go to work on. And it’s one Eldon wouldn’t get wrong, because it contains no hidden depths. A better production than Sam Gold’s for the Roundabout might at least give the play the pleasure of technical dazzle. The staging is static and haphazard, on a set by David Zinn that keeps shoving the action downstage; when the set finally opens up, the upper half shifting toward the flies to reveal train windows seen from the interior (the first time) and from the exterior (the second time), this sleight of hand doesn’t produce anything significant or resounding. The script calls for pop music – Henry’s favorite tunes – to bridge the scenes; Gold has the actors sing as they move around the furniture, though not in character, and on a couple of occasions Madeline Weinstein, who plays Henry and Charlotte’s teenager daughter Debbie, accompanies them on guitar; these vaguely Brechtian interludes don’t have a visible point. McGregor and Gyllenhaal, two actors I love, give sharp performances, and the star power they generate helps considerably, and Raftery is perfectly believable in the role of the young actor who develops a crush on his leading lady, but I didn’t care for anyone else in the cast. Both Hamilton and Nixon seem miscast; they don’t convince you that they belong to the same world as the two leads. Nixon has a link to the play; at eighteen she appeared as Debbie in the original Broadway production, performing simultaneously in David Rabe’s Hurlyburly, both under Mike Nichols’s direction. (The much greater length of Rabe’s play, and the fact that her character, a hippie, showed up only in the opening and closing scenes made this implausible feat possible.) Nixon is a splendid actress whom I always look forward to seeing on stage, but neither the role nor the production serves her well. Neither does the first costume Kaye Voyce puts her in, which hangs on her handsome frame like a shift. This isn’t the Roundabout at its best , or Tom Stoppard either.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movie.

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