Opening Nights

Arcadia

Capitol Hill Arts Center; ends Sat., April 24

It's proof of Tom Stoppard's unstoppability that the stunning London revival of his 1972 philosophy romp Jumpers leapt the Atlantic to Broadway this week. You haven't really made it, though, until you've been produced by a shoestring company of uneven ability and your play is still a recognizable masterpiece. That's what's happening at CHAC, where director Sheila Daniels crams a vast English estate onto a tiny, raked, sharply triangular stage devised by scenic designer Ryan Robinett. The estate, Sidley Park, is the setting of Stoppard's haunting, heartrending cosmic comedy Arcadia, comprising twin interlaced story lines set in 1809–1812 and today.

In 1809, we meet the heroine, 13-year-old Thomasina Coverly (Megan Hill). "What is carnal embrace?" she asks her tutor, Septimus (John Bianchi). "The practice of throwing one's arms around a side of beef," he lies. But she is a math genius who grasps more than her elders—and not just about the grown-up nookie going on in every cranny of Sidley Park. By instinct, she sees that her era's Newtonian belief in a fixed, predictable universe is disproved every time one stirs jam into pudding. Newton's apple can retrace its fall—the equation can run backward or forward—but jam (and hearts) once stirred cannot be unstirred. In Stoppard's moral calculus, illicit embrace is another irresistible force that upsets Newtonian Victorian order.

Daniels' cast can just wrap its mouths around the 1800s farce part of the play—barely. Hill nicely nails Thomasina's Gidgety flibbertigibbet quality, but not the character's deeper, doomier obbligato; Bianchi gets Septimus' Oxford superciliousness, but not his passion. Better is the 20th-century tale of modern scholars descending on Sidley Park. As Bernard, the don with a scandalous, erroneous theory of what went down in 1809, Charles Leggett is vivid and funny (if way too fortissimo); Jonah Von Spreecken gives ornery grit to Valentine, the modern Coverly chaotician; playing Hannah, Bernard's rival historian and elusive romantic prey, Amy Frazier has some real Helen Mirren class, and outperforms all.

I have trouble with the last scene, when one couple from each century does a waltz (the sex-dance scandal of the 1800s). The stage, which worked up to then, proves too small to accommodate all four people, and Daniels sets the dance to the Beatles' "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away"—the tone and three-quarter time are right, but the lyrics are all wrong.

Much goes wrong, in fact, in Daniels' production. The more-competent 20th-century scenes overdominate the fumbling 18th-century ones. But the actors plunge boldly in over their heads, and Stoppard's buoyant greatness saves them. TIM APPELO

Edmond

Open Circle Theater; ends Sat., May 8

Little wonder Open Circle has hauled out this little-known early Mamet: The country is going to hell again. First produced in 1982, Edmond is an avalanche of fear and loathing that tracks one man's precipitous fall from alienation and angst into a nightmarish hellhole of insanity, perversion, and murder. The play opens with our eponymous antihero walking out on his wife into the mean streets of New York, where he shoves off on a seemingly involuntary odyssey into an ugly urban landscape—a city so furiously disaffecting and nasty that the only response to it is raw, unmitigated outrage. In Edmond's vulnerable mind, the world is a hopeless mess: Everything is polluted by money; motivations are buried under the pocked flesh of lust; sex itself is a con game. And New York itself is an existential disaster waiting to happen.

As with such classic fictional sadsacks as Raskolnikov and Travis Bickle, Edmond (played by a creepily captivating Lyam White) is portrayed as an almost good man writhing under the endless assault of a misunderstanding world—he lacks some crucial quality, a sense of inner stability or peace, that would allow him to exist amidst the ruins of humanity. Mamet's terse, hard-boiled dialogue is the perfect vehicle for conveying the frustration and fear that underscore Edmond's suffocating misanthropy. In his every encounter, and especially in his encounters with women, what is not said screams louder than the foul poetry that passes for communication, and Edmond's lines—stunned, clipped, and loaded all at once—play straight man to the silent desperation surrounding him, until language itself becomes a compound error.

The production is gorgeously put together. Director Chris Mayse makes innovative use of the spare setting, essentially quartering the stage and rhythmically moving the action around the four corners. The portrayal of a single New York day in the space of five minutes—through repetition and a layering of the apparently random movements of multiple characters—is particularly stunning. Designer Larry A. Ryan creates an impressive soundscape that conveys, through subtle hisses and song clips, the teeming freakiness of New York without overpowering the action. The cast, with most characters assuming two and three roles, is excellent. Kudos to Open Circle for producing a piece at once relevant and artistically engaging in this age of Bush-league badness and moral torpor. This is a morality play with teeth, and audiences could use a good bite right about now. RICK LEVIN

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