Rosemary Harris and Bhavesh Patel photos by
Set designer Neil Patel’s elaborate Indian frame around the entire
proscenium captures a certain exotic aura which enhances the tranquil, pale
blue house – or is it a hotel? – within, its intricately arched windows saying
this is India, 1930. A travel worn young lady carrying her single suitcase in
spite of the vigorous disapproval of her Indian guide cannot wait to go inside.
Downstage, the tea table and chairs, though Indian influenced, say England. But
might it just as well be saying England within India? We know for sure as
soon as starched, plain, Eleanor Swan (remarkable 87 year old Rosemary Harris)
offers obsequiously bent Mr. Pike (excellent Neal Huff) a choice of cake for
his tea. Still worming himself into her good graces, Mr. Pike chooses her
favorite. She serves him a very slender slice, indicating a short interview.
Mr. Pike has come seeking anything and everything he can find out
about Flora Crewe (lovely Romola Garai) the somewhat notorious older sister of
Eleanor’s whose poetry he has published to enough acclaim to stimulate Mr. Pike
into wanting more: perhaps a biography? Eleanor sets him right about that.
Nothing like a biography to get everything wrong. Perhaps a memoir, M. Pike
thinks, eyeing the box full of letters Eleanor has saved for over fifty years,
letters from Flora from her stay in India, written around the time of her
rumored nude portrait, now missing. Eleanor has no such portrait, nor would
she give it to him. Perhaps he should look in India, even after all this time?
Oh, he will, all right.
(From left) Rosemary Harris, Romola Garai and Bhavesh Patel
And we are in India again, in the 1930’s as lissome Flora settles
in, extravagantly fawned upon by Indian gentlemen and their lessers. Rumors of
her arrival in India have attracted among others, Nirad Das (brilliant Firdous
Bamji) all enamored shyness, confessing his absolute longing to paint her, the
exquisite agony of being in her presence intensifying as the days go by, much
of his enchantment conveyed in letters by Flora to her sister. Also smitten is
dashing David Durance ( spot on Lee Aaron Rosen) as British as British could
be, his quest and his questions telling Flora he’s somewhat on official
business as well as being another worshipper at the shrine of Flora.
Playwright Tom Stoppard plays with us, plays with time, plays with
his characters. Is the lovely Flora as sweet and simple as she appears? Then
why the lip smacking history trailing behind her? Does she really know H. G.
Wells, and how well? For that matter, what was her relationship with that
Italian sculptor/painter Modigliani? Why are British intelligence services, especially
dashing Durance so interested in her? And what is she doing in India? And – can
noted painter Nirad Das, contorting himself suppressing his grand passion for
Flora, as he paints her, day after day, can he really be so in love with her
without reciprocation on her part?
That, also is the burning question young Anish Das (splendid
Bhavesh Patel) asks Eleanor, fifty years later. He, too, is looking for answers
about his family’s involvement hidden somewhere in the few tales and objects
that have been handed down to him. And playwright Stoppard is in no hurry to
resolve anyone’s curiosities, least of all, ours. What nags is a suspicion of
subterfuge. Oh, Not Eleanor’s. Rosemary Harris as Eleanor is the picture of
protective rectitude concerning her sister’s past. It’s our playwright,
Stoppard, who is playing with us. Even as he doles out Flora’s story – in
India – he allows us to see the British versus the Indians whose continent the
British have subsumed and made their own. Director Carey Perloff makes much of
this fascinating, disturbingly insensitive baring of behaviors, Stoppard’s
subtext, and the play’s real message.
Firdous Bamji and Romola Garai
Because Flora’s story, when you come right down to it, is lady’s
book twaddle, dressed to kill in Stoppard speak. How British the upper class
Brits are, indulging themselves in India, even in those waning days of the
Empire. Dashing David Durance takes Flora riding to woo her. To debrief her?
He takes her dancing in a very British club, and very off the cuff, although
still stiff upper lip, he proposes to her. Flora dismisses his offer of
marriage with the same aplomb. It seems she is more intrigued holding her
Indian painter, Anish Das, in thrall.
Romola Garai plays Flora as if she were, indeed, Flora, feather
light but deep down weighted by what may have happened. Or by what is
happening? Is she really in inclement India for her health as she claims or is
another malaise lying heavily on her? Has Eleanor read between the lines and
does not wish Mr. Pike to do the same? Does Stoppard leave us wanting more,
not knowing what we really want? It’s a slippery play, full of pleasures and
Much as I admired Romola Gerai and Rosemary Harris, by far the
most interesting character is Anish Das. Firdous Bamji is giving one of the
most complex, subtle performances in town. I also particularly liked Rajeev
Darma as a very obvious Rajah, Ajay Naidu, Omar Maskati and Nick Choksi, and
Neal Huff as Mr. Pike grew on me. Costumer Candice Donnelly has dressed the
company in story telling clothing they all wear as if lived in and director
Perloff has baked her company as if it were a delicious tea cake. I think I
would have liked a bigger slice.
Indian Ink. At the Laura Pels Theatre, 111 West 46th
Street. Tickets: $89. 212-719-1300. 2 hrs, 45 min. thru Nov 30.