It is a mark of a great playwright when even his lesser works are filled with delight and intelligence of the highest order, and such is the case with Tom Stoppard's Indian Ink, now in a new production at A.C.T. directed by Carey Perloff. In a rarity for A.C.T., Perloff's close ties with Stoppard over the last two decades allowed her to open this production first in New York, off-Broadway at the Roundabout Theater this past fall with Rosemary Harris as one of the leads, before bringing it west. And this marks the second time A.C.T. has produced the play its American premiere was in San Francisco, at A.C.T., back in 1999, and the 2014 production was its first appearance on a New York stage. Written in the same period as Stoppard's most celebrated work Arcadia, Indian Ink shares several structural and thematic similarities with that play, which A.C.T. also recently produced for a second time, including an exploration of the role of artists, an academic's obsession with textual evidence, and a clever juxtaposition of past and present characters sharing the same moments on stage.
Indian Ink tells the story of Flora Crewe (played by the excellent Brenda Meaney whom audiences may remember from last year's production of Venus in Fur), an English poet from the 1920s now celebrated in the present day, but whose life was cut short before she knew any notoriety in her lifetime. We learn her story partly through letters that have been collected by a scholar, Eldon (played by A.C.T. company member Anthony Fusco) who teaches her work, and through her sister Eleanor (Roberta Swan). As Flora's own story of a 1930 visit to Ghandi-era colonial India plays out on stage, Eldon's contemporary story of trying to hunt down a painting of Flora, only hinted at in her letters, in modern-day India plays out simultaneously. Flora makes the acquaintance of a painter and Anglophile (Firdous Bamji) who decides that Flora must sit for a portrait, and meanwhile Eleanor, in the present day, at age 75, is visited by that painter's son (Pej Vahdat).
What then unfolds over the course of three hours is a transportive journey to a specific moment in Indian history replete with commentary on colonialism and a well considered debate over the pros and cons of English influence on the culture. Also, we have a view into the specific mind of this unique and headstrong woman, as well as a romantic tale of her brief encounter with a kindred spirit and fellow artist. As with all Stoppard's plays, one comes away feeling both edified and charmed, having been swept up in his prose, and most of the cast does marvelous work interpreting it special praise is due to Firdous Bamji, who creates an especially compelling and insecure character out of the artist Nirad Das, who forms the spiritual heart of the play. Only Swan, as Eleanor, made stumbles over several lines.
Visually, Indian Ink works beautifully, and the versatile set by Neil Patel functions terrifically throughout and well conveys shifts in space and time. Perloff's direction is gentle but well paced, and her love for the material is clear.
The play comes up short in that it lacks any true drama or punch. In Arcadia, for instance, there is intrigue surrounding Lord Byron and whether or not he ever passed through the house at the center of the play, and a delightful tension between two competing academics, as well as tensions in the text between fact and fiction, art and science. There is also reams more lyricism and memorable takeaway lines that aren't as plentiful in Indian Ink which in some ways almost feels like a study, or preliminary sketch, for the masterwork that Arcadia would be.
But there are plenty of mildly moving vignettes and much of Stoppard's signature wit and curiosity in every scene. The mystery surrounding a missing painting of Flora is solved before we even know to feel any suspense, and what we're left with, as Stoppard himself has put it, is "a cozy little play" about love, the virtue of art, and lost time. That, of course, is hardly a bad thing.
Indian Ink plays through February 8 at the Geary Theater. Get tickets here.