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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
It's easy to understand why Indian Ink is often likened to Arcadia (1993). It too cuts back and forth between characters in two time periods (1930s India and 1980s England) and shares the same set and juxtaposed cultural themes. Given Arcadia's reputation as a masterful standard bearer of the genre known as the theater of ideas, this linkage has put Indian Ink in the unfair position of often being dismissed as a lesser follow-up. That's even though it had its genesis as a 1991 radio play, In A Native State.
But why compare when there's so much to enjoy? You see, Indian Ink is a Stoppardian gem, no matter what its rank in his oeuvre of idea and linguistically rich plays. While Indian Ink actually proved its recreational and mind-stretching power once before in a less high profile New York production( Review of 2013 Off-Off- Broadway run), this first major New York presentation is without a doubt the most beautiful production currently on any New York stage.
Carey Perloff's love for the play she first directed fifteen years ago for the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco is evident in everything happening on the Roundabout Theater Company's Laura Pels Stage. The cast delivering the often amusing and always whip smart dialogue between its time-traveling characters is stellar. The top tier designers allow the intertwined stories to play out with elegant simplicity.
Romola Garai, besides being ravishingly beautiful as the British poet Flora Crewe who's visiting Raj India, invests her with a fine blend of vivaciousness and sensitivity. If I would change one thing about her performance it would be to have the director steer her to speaking in an octave lower.
Firdous Bamji brings the male lead, a portrait painter named Nirad Das, to vibrant and sympathetic life. He and Flora get to know each other as he paints her portrait. She wants him to be more Indian, and he teaches her about Rasa — the state of heightened emotion any work of art must create.
Octogenarian Rosemary Harris still has plenty of star power as wonderfully acerbic and smart Eleanor Swan, Flora's elderly sister during the 1980s segments. Eleanor's own story is cleverly interwoven into her crusty older self's interchanges with Eldon Pike (a terrifically amusing Neal Huff). Pike is the editor of a book The Collected Letters of Flora Crewe who is also writing her biography More details unfold during Eleanor's meetings with Nirad Das's son Amish Das (the charismatic Bhavesh Patel).
Flora's posthumous fame, Eleanor's shoebox full of letters from her sister, and Pike's own extensively researched footnotes bear out all of Stoppard's thematic hot spots: The many ways an artist is recognized, the inevitable connection between love and loss, and mostly, how no one can ever really know anyone's history fully.
I suppose getting into the intricate story will be easier for audiences familiar with Indian history and the pre-1947 Indian/British relations and who have read E.M Forster's Passage to India (one of many of Stoppard;s typical literary references in the play) or seen the 1980s TV series The Jewel in the Crown. That said, however, Stoppard's writing and characters are so stimulating that nothing is ever really a head scratcher. The various subplots are so smoothly and absorbingly knitted together that it all makes sense.
The story of Flora's life in 1930s India is simultaneously enacted in the 1980s scenes. Thus we see the enduring effect on her sister's life, on the work of the biographer, and on the Anglicized modern painter Amish Das's perception of his portrait artist father. Adding color to each segments, are David Durance (Nick Choksi) as a British Empire officer smitten with Flora , and Pike's Indian guide Dilip (Tim McGeever) in some scenes set in 1980s India.
Neil Patel's pristine scenery, subtly lit by Robert Wiertzel, enables the large cast to fluidly negotiate the play's two worlds with minimal props. Candice Donnelly's gowns for Ms. Garai are breathtaking, but she has also dressed the other actors to period. perfection.
Though there's one fleetingly beautiful scene and a heretofore secret water color to make a sexual affair between Flora and Nirad Das more than a mere hint. Yet, as her sister sees it "it hardly matters, looking back. Men were not really important to Flora. If they had been, they would have been fewer. She used them like batteries. When things went flat, she'd put in anew one..." Maybe so, but seeing this lovely play is indeed a battery charge to have anyone with a taste for visually stunning, finely acted and written plays experience the heightened sentiments of rasa — especially three evoking the erotic, comic and pathetic.
For more about Tom Stoppard with quotes and links to reviews, see our Stoppard Backgrounder .