Tom Stoppard has written many witty, challenging and provocative plays in a career that's spanned more than four decades. And many critics feel his masterpiece is "Arcadia," which premiered in London in 1993 and is opening tonight in its first New York revival.

Jeff Lunden reports.

JEFF LUNDEN: Like many of Tom Stoppard's plays, "Arcadia" isn't easily described. Somehow he has managed to take on themes as divergent as chaos theory, academic ambition, the second law of thermodynamics, sex and...

Mr. TOM STOPPARD (Playwright, "Arcadia"): There's the passion about gardening. And then, of course, there's the Byron thing. Byron is an offstage character, but he's as near onstage as you can get without being onstage.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUNDEN: Ah, yes, the Byron thing. "Arcadia" is set in a British manor house, Sidley Park, and its scenes alternate between 1809 and the present, when a pair of academics are researching the events that happened in the house when the poet Lord Byron visited.

For the contemporary characters, it's kind of a whodunit did Byron kill a minor poet in a duel?

Much of the fun is seeing what actually occurred in 1809, versus the sometimes wildly incorrect conclusions the contemporary characters reach.

Stoppard says he enjoyed writing dialogue for two different centuries.

Mr. STOPPARD: I felt at home writing 19th century speeches, which are not particularly naturalistic. They're quite mannered, in the style of that period. It's a very enjoyable idiom for me - especially if one is trying to write people with a certain kind of ironic wit, for example.

(Soundbite of play, "Arcadia")

Mr. DAVID TURNER (Actor): (as Ezra Chater) You insulted my wife in the gazebo yesterday evening.

Mr. TOM RILEY (Actor): (as Septimus Hodge) But you are mistaken, sir. I made love to your wife in the gazebo.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RILEY: (as Septimus Hodge) She asked me to meet her there. I have a note somewhere. I daresay, I can find it for you. If someone is putting it about I did not turn up, then by God, sir, that is a slander.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STOPPARD: There's a certain kind of pleasure, doubled up, when you're writing that kind of stuff in apposition to a contemporary, slightly foul-mouthed person who might drop the occasional four-letter word and use heavy sarcasm. And so it's a great advantage and a bonus to have, really, two different languages, both of them English, in the same play.

(Soundbite of play, "Arcadia")

Ms. LIA WILLIAMS (Actor): (as Hanna Jarvis) Your conversation, left to itself, doesn't have many places to go. Like two marbles rolling around a pudding basin, one of them is always sex. Men.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BILLY CRUDUP (Actor): (as Bernard Nightingale) Ah, well. Yes.

Ms. WILLIAMS: (as Hanna Jarvis) Einstein: Relativity and sex.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WILLIAMS: (as Hanna Jarvis) Chippendale: Sex and furniture.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WILLIAMS: (as Hanna Jarvis) Galileo: Did the Earth move?

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUNDEN: Director David Leveaux says there are, in essence, two acting companies in "Arcadia."

Mr. DAVID LEVEAUX (Director): In the rehearsal room, part of the challenge is to make sure that the, as it were, the companies that are in, you know, each century aren't kept apart for too long. Because, you know, they actually are much more mutually dependent than they probably feel they are, at the outset of rehearsal; that they actually have to take care of each other's information a lot of the time.

LUNDEN: In the final scene of the play, both centuries come together in one of Stoppard's most brilliant theatrical moments.

Mr. LEVEAUX: At that point, it is a moment of great discovery, actually, for both halves of the company to discover how much they are indebted to one another, in fact.

LUNDEN: If anyone knows about the duality of "Arcadia," it's actor Billy Crudup. He's playing Bernard, the abrasive Byron scholar in the revival. But 16 years ago, he made his Broadway debut in the original New York production, playing Septimus, Byron's friend.

Crudup says playing two different characters from two different centuries, in two different decades, has been a fascinating experience for him as an actor.

Mr. CRUDUP: Septimus is so assured. He's the conduit for the audience to the play. There's an immediate affection and appreciation for him giving you, as an audience member, access to this fascinating but ornate world. Bernard, on the other hand, behaves wildly inappropriately and disdainfully, and is a kind of eccentric that you don't have easy access to.

LUNDEN: If Bernard is less than lovable, he's nonetheless a passionate defender of poetry versus science. He gives a fiery speech in the second act, says director David Leveaux.

Mr. LEVEAUX: It is the most - sort of thrilling and mischievous assault on the arrogance of science. There is also a profound grain of truth in it that, you know, I think many scientists would accept.

(Soundbite of play, "Arcadia")

Mr. CRUDUP: (as Bernard Nightingale) A great poet is always timely. A great philosopher is an urgent need. There's no rush for Isaac Newton. We were quite happy with Aristotle's cosmos - personally, I preferred it. Fifty-five crystal spheres geared to God's crankshaft is my idea of a satisfying universe. I can't think of anything more trivial than the speed of light.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CRUDUP: (as Bernard Nightingale) Quarks, quasars, big bang, black hole who gives a (bleep).

LUNDEN: David Leveaux says that all of the characters in both centuries are passionate about the pursuit of knowledge. One of his favorite lines is spoken by Hannah, a contemporary character who's researching the history of Sidley Park's garden.

Mr. LEVEAUX: It's the wanting to know that makes us matter. And I think, in that phrase, is a sort of glorious and open-hearted encapsulation of something that's very beautiful about the human desire to know, and that making us human. And that transcends even the particular detail of the subjects involved.

(Soundbite of play, "Arcadia")

Mr. RA´┐ŻL ESPARZA (Actor): (as Valentine Coverly) To be at the beginning again, knowing almost nothing. People were talking about the end of physics; relativity and quantum looked as if they were going to clean out the whole problem between them - the Theory of Everything. But they only explain the very big and the very small; the universe, the elementary particles.

The ordinary side stuff, which is our lives, the things people write poetry about clouds, daffodils, waterfalls, and what happens in a cup of coffee, when the cream goes in - these things are full of mystery.

LUNDEN: Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia" opens tonight at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Broadway.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

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