Valentine Coverly, the modern-day mathematician in Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia, now in an engaging revival on Broadway, celebrates science while praising the mysteriousness of infinity. Both the infinity speech and Raúl Esparza’s superlative performance as Valentine are key elements in this David Leveaux-directed production, which was staged with different actors two years ago in London. The most conspicuous difference between it and the version that premiered in 1993 is Valentine’s use of an up-to-date Apple laptop, whose access to Google et al enriches the resonance of the references to algorithms.
In this story, which alternates between an English country estate in the early 19th century and the same estate in the present day, Valentine’s speech is at once a touching highlight of a staging at times starved of heart-tugging moments and a nod to other meditations on the subject of infinity. (Until this revival I had never connected Arcadia with Milan Kundera – like Stoppard, Czech-born – who riffs in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting on the idea that humankind is forever tragically torn between the infinitely large and the infinitesimally small.)
Valentine’s influence lingers but it is the contemporary literary professor Bernard Nightingale who drives the play’s detective-story element. He squares off against fellow intellectual Hannah Jarvis to determine whether Lord Byron fought a duel while visiting the estate in which he killed a minor poet, Ezra Chater, over the honour of Chater’s wife.
Billy Crudup’s Nightingale is, like his brilliant literary critic Belinsky in the New York production of Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia, rather given to shouting. This is sometimes amusing and sometimes rather too much; it is difficult to imagine this Nightingale not wearing out a tutorial student in five minutes flat.
Crudup’s attention-grabbing persona is at the opposite pole from Esparza’s emphatically civilising presence. The other actors – Tom Riley’s very fine 1809 tutor, Septimus Hodge, and Lia Williams’s sturdy Hannah among them – oscillate between these extremes.