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New York City Theater

"Indian Ink"
Laura Pels Theater

Do we ever really know other people, much less ourselves? Buried in Tom Stoppard dense, methodical, witty works are intimate stories of characters searching for their roots. So it is, too, with the leisurely, rueful “Indian Ink,” which debuted in 1995 and is having its first major New York outing thanks to Roundabout Theater Company.

Stoppard’s focus on uncovering facts and histories is a natural for the Czech-born playwright who, fleeing the Nazis as a child, ended up with his family first in Singapore and India, then in England. In “Indian Ink,” he takes on the fictional English poet Flora Crewe’s health-seeking sojourn in India filtered through the factual emergence of the subcontinent itself from British rule. Flora is both an individual and a symbol, as is Nirad Das, the Indian who covets all things English. Flora, recognizing the conflict, asks that he be Indian “not Englished-up.”

Their relationship is at the heart of the play’s mystery, as is the portrait he paints of her. Finding what’s behind the portrait is finding more than “a smudge of paint on paper.”

Eager to discover the secrets is an awkward, over-eager American biographer, Eldon Pike, who visits Flora’s sister, Eleanor Swan. Over proper tea and cake, Eleanor reveals just so much and little more as the play roams over two time periods, India in 1930 (before achieving independence) and its former colonial ruler, England in the 1980s. (When Das’ son labels the first War of Independence, “The Rising,” Eleanor counters with, “Oh, you mean the Mutiny.”)

We see what may or may not have happened, filtered through paintings, letters and memories. In a clash of cultures and class, only art unites. Do Nirad’s paintings and Flora’s poems have “rasa” or emotion? And why does he paint best when she’s writing a poem, not a letter?

While “Indian Ink” may be steps below other Stoppard works like “Arcadia,” which it resembles, it has many moments that truly dazzle. Parts of its appeal are its ambiguities, its impossibility of separating what is personally and politically true from what is not.

Besides the always marvelous Rosemary Harris as Mrs. Swan, Neal Huff is an edgy Pike, Firdous Bamji an appealing, complex Das and Romola Garai an attractive Flora. Carey Perloff’s direction is a model of clarity, while the set, costumes and lighting contribute flair to a stimulating evening which aims for the head before the heart.

--David A. Rosenberg
Oct. 3, 2014

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