If the Mitford sisters, who attracted attention in social circles in the 1930s, didn’t fascinate or even interest you, then you might have trouble cozying up to Tom Stoppard’s very long play about his fictional Crewe sisters, Flora and Eleanor. Written with his usual grace and elegance, well researched in the manners and general behavior of Anglo-Indian society, his play Indian Ink seemed to me more of a lecture than a play, for it presented characters in Flora’s life in the year 1930, and others who are close to her younger sister Eleanor in the 1980s when she is 75 years old.
Mr. Stoppard loves to fool around with time and with what it does to erase memories and create second thoughts about people, places and events. We first meet Eleanor, who loved her older sister Flora. She is determined not to allow her would-be biographer, the American Eldon Pike, to use Fora’s collected letters, for, in her opinion, biography is “the worst possible excuse for getting things wrong.”
Mr. Stoppard drops these bon mots here and there throughout his almost three hour play, and they do bring a smile or a quiet laugh from an audience at least pretending to be totally attentive. I was interested, I will admit, but never fully engaged, and was left feeling I’d been exposed to a beautiful Fabergé egg, with little of substance or present relevance inside. With all that’s happening now in the Middle East, with climate change becoming dinner conversation, with named and unnamed diseases popping up, volcanos erupting, tsunamis destroying property and lives —- well, a three hour probe into what brought the Anglo-Indian union about in the first place, and what dissolved it in the last, did not keep me riveted or even moved.
Mr. Stoppard spent some time in India as a small boy, and clearly its religion, its climate, its culture mightily engaged him, and in 1995 he collected his thoughts and put them into this unwieldy piece of literature which spends more time giving us facts than revealing the characters who present them to us.
Flora is played beautifully by Romola Garai, an actress totally new to me, though known to many (from “Atonement” and TV’s “The Hour”). Though Flora is ill with a fatal disease in 1930 she has firmly decided to go on with her adventurous life as long as she is able.
Though only in her thirties, she has had affairs with a dashing British army officer who is making good use of his service in India, and even with a Rajah who admits to being wild for her. These are characters created by the playwright, but he tells us there were others, very real others, like the painter Modigliani, for whom she once posed, and H.G.Wells who not only coveted her body, but admired her brain. Ms. Garai has the cool beauty of Grace Kelly and imbues Flora with fire as well as ice. She carries the brunt of Mr. Stoppard’s literate dialogue, and she must be careful to modulate her voice, for it can become shrill and indecipherable, though the performance as a whole is impeccable.
Rosemary Harris, radiant and in peak form in her eighties, shows us aspects of her younger self when she was an ardent Communist as well as her present elegant, contained English lady. Her voice is still velvet, and she knows how to hurl the occasional gem her playwright gives her, so that it lands right on our funny bone.
There are excellent performances offered by Firdous Bamji as Nirad Das, a local artist who begins a close connection with Flora by painting her portrait. Another is Bhavesh Patel as Anis Das, the grown son of Nirad who is part of the 1980s story that involves Eleanor. An Indian guide, a politician, The Rajah, an Official of the fictional province in which the play is set, these are peripheral characters who give us more information than we can assimilate without involving us in the inner life of any of them. The Indian accent used accurately throughout by a handful of convincing actors do indeed make complete understanding of their words virtually impossible.
Carey Perloff directed with a firm hand and she clearly has great affection for the material. She has staged many Stoppard plays, including the American premieres of his The Invention of Love and Indian Ink. Aided by Neil Patel’s pastel walls and Candice Donnelly’s stylish gowns and outfits for the male characters, she creates an atmosphere that is exotic, romantic but tinged with danger. Lots of tea trolleys appear with appetizing little cakes to accompany the constant pouring of tea both in the 1930 and 1980 sequences. It all evokes a time and place with ease and seeming accuracy. But it’s the intricacies of human behavior that pull us into foreign territories and time zones, intricacies that allow us to empathize and identify, and I felt left out, rather like a visitor to a museum viewing figures posed provocatively, but separated from us by a glass wall.
Indian Ink in onstage through November 30, 2014 at The Laura Pels Theatre, 111 West 46th Street, New York, NY, 10036.
Details and tickets
Richard Seff, Broadway performer, agent, playwright, librettist, columnist adds novelist to his string of accomplishments, with the publication of his first novel, TAKE A GIANT STEP. His first book, Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrates his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes. Both books are available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
He has also written the book to SHINE! The Horatio Alger Musical which was a triple prize winner at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF).
Each year, Actors Equity recognizes the year’s most outstanding supporting player with, appropriately enough, the Richard Seff Award.