“Arcadia” is a splendid Rubik’s Cube, as playwright Tom Stoppard twists its many facets with amazing sleight of hand, letting the audience put it all together — or not.
Running almost three hours and encompassing a huge variety of esoteric subjects — in two periods separated by 200 years, sometimes with characters from both eras intermingling on the same stage — “Arcadia” is not cushy entertainment.
American Conservatory Theater’s reprise production, which opened Wednesday, is yet another Stoppard presentation directed by company artistic director Carey Perloff, who has made the British playwright her specialty.
Those who attended Perloff’s 1995 West Coast premiere of “Arcadia” at the Stage Door — while the theater on Geary Street remained closed after the Loma Prieta earthquake — may be nostalgic for the smaller, more intimate venue.
On the plus side, thanks to the cast’s uniformly excellent diction, all the complex, often enigmatic text of the talky play comes through with appealing clarity on the larger stage.
Sleuthing is the lifeblood of the play, an intellectual detective story where the audience knows the facts — some, anyway — but the truth-seekers onstage don’t.
In an English country estate in 1809, a preternaturally brainy teenager, Tomasina (played with natural, believable grace by Rebekah Brockman) and her tutor, Septimus Hodge (the subtle, charismatic Jack Cutmore-Scott) are working on Fermat’s Last Theorem, proper and poetic translations of Latin classics, and rules of thermodynamics as well as playing with anachronistic thoughts about chaos theory — for starters.
Although Lord Byron never appears in the play, the 20th- century cast investigating what happened on the estate long ago are scholars vying against each other, trying to figure out what dramatic events concerning the poet might have taken place there.
Gretchen Egolf and Andy Murray play the feuding scholars. She understates the role, and he definitely overdoes it. The don Murray plays is a mix of scholarly, if feigned, civility and boisterous rudeness, but in this production, those elements are not well-balanced.
As more subjects and riddles are added to the play — including intricacies of English garden landscaping, fractals, carnal embraces (defined by the tutor for his young student as “embracing a side of beef”), dalliances, jealousies and even death by monkey bite — the actors make strong impressions.
Of the 19th-century characters, Nicholas Belczar is notable as a cuckolded, profoundly untalented poet; Julia Coffey, as the elegant but down-to-earth woman of the manor; and the great veteran Ken Ruta, as the unsteady butler.
In the contemporary half of the action, Allegra Rose Edwards and Adam O’Byrne are good as descendants of the original estate owners; O’Byrne delivers extensive scientific expositions with ease.
- Where: American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., S.F.
- When: 8 p.m. most Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes June 9
- Tickets: $20 to $95
- Contact: (415) 749-2228, www.act-sf.org