Chaos at Arcadia


Tom Stoppard is smarter than I am. He’s smarter than you are, too, and don’t you forget it. We’ll get back to Arcadia in just a moment, but that’s what you need to keep in mind for now.

What’s really important is the shabby way the audience was treated last night at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. As I walked from the parking lot, I observed a long line of customers waiting to go inside to see Rain. I glanced at my watch; it was close to 7:40 p.m. Poor saps, I thought. The weather was foul, with sleet that felt more like hail, and lightning flashing in the sky. When I reached the Barrymore, that line was even longer, with many patrons clustered under the small awning. Dodging the open umbrellas, I squeezed my way in, countering not a few curses with “Sorry, sorry, sorry” until I reached the back of the lobby to find the press agents for the show. For whatever reason, they were outside, all but smashed against the wall of the theater, so I painstakingly reversed my steps.

By the time I got back to the ticket taker, the area was jammed with patrons jostling to get into the house. As I slowly made my way through the inside corridor, a woman going in the other direction hissed, “You’re not getting through here;” she thrust out her elbow and body slammed me twice. One of my most important life lessons has been to learn to choose when I fight. This wasn’t the time, the place, or the reason. But it could have been. All around me, people were furious, frustrated, struggling. The situation had very quickly gone from uncomfortable to potentially dangerous.

I don’t know for sure, but I suspect why theaters are opening their doors to their customers well past the 7:30 p.m. time we’ve come to expect. A lot of people congregated outside makes the show look like a hit. Hey, look at everyone trying to get in to see it. This is a disgraceful way to use theater supporters, and to do so in the kind of weather we had on March 23 is inexcusable. This situation is occurring on a regular basis at theaters all over town. Theater owners, take action immediately. Open the doors to the house at 7:30 p.m., and make sure that your ushers receive additional training to keep traffic flowing. The bill for keeping your theater open is being paid by the very theatergoers whose wellbeing is threatened.

As to the show, this revival is well done, but not awe inspiring. The story, which switches back and forth between 1809 and present day, can be hard to follow. A grand, largely empty room in a mansion serves effectively for both time periods. The plot revolves around a brilliant young girl, Thomasina (Bel Powley) who, in a session with her dashing tutor (Tom Riley), proposes a complicated theory. (Powley and Riley, photo above).

Two centuries later, a pair of rival academics (Lia Williams and Billy Crudup) work to piece together what it all means. The math involved is totally beyond me, and therefore, I found it not very interesting.

The humor of the play arises largely from our recognition of how history can become twisted to suit the needs of those who are writing it. A quick sketch of an imagined hermit is transformed into a significant life’s work. Imagined scenarios are accepted as fact.

The cast is simply superb. We expect fine performances from veterans Crudup and Margaret Colin, who plays the somewhat randy lady of the house in the Georgian era. I’ve been unfamiliar with Tom Riley, an impressive actor from the British stage, here making his Broadway debut; I am now looking forward to seeing him work again. This is also the first time Bel Powley has graced the New York stage, but I’m sure it won’t be the last.

American actress Grace Gummer (photo, above, with Crudup), is truly dazzling. She has Velcro to spare; you just can’t take your eyes off her as she crosses the stage, flirting and tossing her blond tresses. Yes, she is the look-alike daughter of Marvelous Meryl, and she proves here that talent and star quality charisma can be genetic.

Was it worth the torture required to get to our seats? No, because nothing would be. Not only is it unconscionable to make the audience battle the gauntlet to see the play. It’s also unfair for the accomplished actors to have to win over a house full of cranky people.

Such a simple fix: Open the doors at half hour, and let ticket holders enter in an orderly, dignified fashion.

Photos by Carol Rosegg

Ethel Barrymore Theatre
243 West 47th Street

Michall Jeffers is an accomplished Cultural Journalist. She writes extensively, both in print and online. Her eponymous cable TV show is syndicated throughout the tri-state area, and features celebrity interviews, reviews, and commentary. She is a voting member of Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, American Theatre Critics Association, International Association of Theatre Critics.

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