Easily the best fringe show I’ve seen this year is Bad Habit’s production of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. Director Daniel Morris (who did an admirable An Ideal Husband in 2009) has transgressed the usual limitations of fringe theater (less rehearsal time, young and less experienced actors, etc.) with this show that does certain justice to Stoppard’s challenging language and heady themes. The cast gives a flawless and delivery of Stoppard’s language, where there are more than a few mouthfuls, and doesn’t let their comic timing slip once, nailing every single joke in the play. The Nineteenth century manners and aristocratic British accents are managed as well and professionally as the technical subject matter, including modern literary scholarship and fractals. I was literally in awe through the entire first act, unable to take notes.
Of course, Bad Habit has chosen some excellent material (whose plot I’ll refrain from summarizing), but the play is as difficult as it is good. The real danger with Arcadia as a reader, director, or audience member, is cheapening it by seeing it only as a group of metaphors for its pop science subject matter. James Gleick’s Chaos: Making of a New Science came out about five years before Arcadia premiered in ’93 and quickly became one of the best selling pop science books of all time–read, or at least purchased, by scores of critics and theatergoers. Basically all the science in Arcadia is covered in this book. And reading Stoppard’s text through a critical or directorial lens rooted in Gleick’s science journalism trivializes the characters and their relationships.
Thankfully, Bad Habit hasn’t fallen into this trap and we get fantastic performances and even better quippy exchanges. Greg Nussen is memorable and mature as Septimus Hodge, the somber and aloof gentleman scientist and tutor to the cheeky child prodigy Thomasina Coverly (played well by Alycia Sacco, who subtly shifts the character from innocent smart ass to jail bait). A. Nora Long nails the airy condescension of Lady Croom, as she casually drops in and out of the action. Comic relief is well provided for by David Lutheran with his constipated facial expressions as the cuckolded and gullible minor poet Ezra Chater. The dialogue between John Geoffrion (as the ambitious Romantic literary scholar Bernard Nightingale) and Sarah Bedard (as Hannah Jarvis, the successful historical novelist with impressive research chops) is lively and well developed.
The second act didn’t go as well as the first. Some of the energy atrophied (perhaps this has something to do with entropy?) and the metaphorical climax of Arcadia, when the 1809 and 2011 timelines start to intersect, lacked the climactic energy I expected it to have. The blocking didn’t quite have the sense of dynamism and dance like intersection I would’ve liked to have seen. But, all in all, Bad Habit has an amazing show on their hands that shows artistic intelligence, a rare sense of comedy, excellent casting, and exceptional characterization.