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Shaun Taylor-Corbett, Caroline Grogran  (Photo: Ashley Garrett)

By Fern Siegel

Tom Stoppard's Arcadia is a lively meditation on the importance of "wanting to know" how the world operates - from carnal to artistic pleasures.

The British playwright is famous for creating plays of intellectual vigor, and Arcadia, now off-Broadway at the West End Theater, is a philosophical romp through time. The Bedlam company has tackled its latest revival, but unlike previous incarnations, with disappointing results.

Stoppard debuted Arcadia in London in 1993. It grapples with a host of serious subjects - from Newtonian law to metaphysics to architectural landscaping. And it takes place in two eras, at Sidley Park, a stately English home in 1809-1812, and the present, which means the 1990s. It posited the Age of Reason and later, the dangerous effects of romanticism.

And in both eras, it addresses how gifted women are often sidelined or dismissed by smug, arrogant men who long for fame, but deliver only rants and pontifications.

Arcadia opens in 1809 with Septimus, a tutor (Shaun Taylor-Corbett,) and his pupil, 13-year-old Thomasina (Caroline Grogan) discussing her math equations. Turns out, the teenager has created algorithms centuries ahead of her time. She doesn't have the technology - or enough paper - to prove her theory, but it's there. Lady Croom (Lisa Birnbaum), her mother, is upset that landscape architect Mr. Noakes (Jamie Smithson) wants to turn her carefully structured gardens into wild acreage. And poet Ezra Chater (Randolph Curtis Rand), a guest, is obsessed with his wife's infidelities.

As one group of characters exits, 20th-century characters who live to interpret the past emerge. Hannah Jarvis (Zuzanna Szadkowski) and writing don Bernard Nightingale (Elan Zafir) are in a heated academic debate over whether Lord Byron stayed at Sidley Park and if he was responsible for Chater's death. Of course, the latter is all supposition posited by Nightingale, who is more interested in his 15 minutes of fame than literary accuracy. Jarvis, a garden historian, is committed to proof and truth. Together, they demonstrate the limits of scholarship and the limitless hunger of those who pursue the past.

But what's really unnerving, given such intense topics, is how uneven and odd the production becomes. Even if audiences don't follow all the theorems - which are admittedly complex - there is real drama afoot.  

That it fails to register is the fault of director Eric Tucker, who had the strange idea to substitute shouting and snorting for solid performances. Worse, for the second act, he inexplicably changes seating: The actors are now in the seat rows and the audience is sitting in white chairs on stage. There is no reason for the switch, nor is there any rationale for actors suddenly tossing everything from bottles to magazines to each other when both generations are in the same scene.

There are a few noteworthy performances, namely Szadkowski and Grogan. But this three-hour ordeal is just that. Stoppard deserves better.

Arcadia, 263 West 86 St.
Running time: 3 hours