Indian Ink at A.C.T.

Dave and I saw Tom Stoppard’s Indian Ink in a new production at A.C.T. this week. Good production of a good play, part satirical comedy and part historical romance.

My only serious problem with the production was that the pacing gets draggy here and there, particularly in the second act. A certain deliberateness in the pacing is more of a necessity than a problem, as the Geary is a very big, echoey theater, and dialogue can be hard to catch if taken at a pace that would be normal in a smaller theater; and then on top of that many of the characters speak in Indian accents that make the words harder to catch. But at times the pacing slows down even more than that, presumably for the emotional effect, and, for my taste anyway, there are a few too many of those times and they go on a bit too long.

The acting is terrific all around — especially, I thought, Brenda Meany as a British poet visiting India in the 1930s, Firdous Bamji as the Indian artist who paints her portrait while she is there, and Anthony Fusco as the nerdy modern-day academic who is looking — a lot too hard and a bit too literally — for evidence of a love affair between the two of them.

My only serious problem with the play is that it’s so similar to Arcadia in so many ways. Arcadia is such a striking and powerful play that Indian Ink feels a bit pale by comparison, and it’s hard not to compare given how much the two plays have in common. (Both plays tell two stories, one in the past and one in the present; in both, the present story concerns a comically stuffy academic who is researching the past story, so that we can see the conclusions that the academic is reaching — often laughably wrong — right alongside the past events themselves; in both plays, past and present share the stage at times; and in both plays an important part of the setting is a single table that is used in both past and present stories, eventually coming to hold props from both stories at the same time. Some of the correspondences are even fairly specific: In both plays, for example, a photograph of a painting that is in some way misidentified, and which appears on the dust jacket of an academic biography, becomes a significant clue in the historical puzzle. Perhaps there is a comedy-romance to be written someday in which a professor of theater history tries to untangle the exact relationship between the two plays, leading perhaps to a climactic scene in which both plays are rehearsed, though two years apart, on the same stage at the same time.)

Still, Indian Ink is a lovely play in its own right with a lot of beauty and a lot of juice in it. The relationship between the poet and the painter, as they get to know each other and share their differing views on art, is terrific comedy of manners and very endearing at the same time.

Stoppard has revised the ending, I understand; though Dave and I also saw the 1999 production, I don’t remember much about it (that was the year of my brain surgery, and my memories of things in the six or seven months before the surgery are very muddled), and I can’t find our paperback copy of the play, so I can’t yet compare the two endings. I did feel that the new ending was a little too long and drawn out, giving the audience the strong feeling two or three times that this is going to be the final scene, only then it isn’t. This may be a problem as much with the pace slackening, though, as with the construction of the ending; I’d need to see it another time or two to decide what I think about it.

The set, costumes, and lighting are stunning, simple but full of deep, rich colors; you can see photos from the production here.

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