When a play references Fermat's Last Theorem in the first minute of dialogue, you know you better pay close attention.
That's the case with Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia," a dizzying blend of philosophy, physics, higher mathematics and even higher comedy that requires diligent parsing throughout its nearly three-hour running time. However, for those fortunate enough to experience Geoff Elliott's inspired staging at A Noise Within in Pasadena, that mental diligence will prove no chore. Your brain may be stretched to its capacity, but the time will fly.
The locale is a capacious garden room in the Coverly family's ancestral estate, Sidley Park, an expanse visible through the towering windows of Frederica Nascimento's symmetrically imposing set. The action vaults back and forth in time between 1809 and the present day (or perhaps 1993, the year the play was originally produced — ironically, shortly before Fermat's puzzler was solved once and for all.)
In 1809, we see sardonic Septimus Hodge (Rafael Goldstein) instructing his gifted young student, Thomasina Coverly (Erika Soto), whose academic brilliance is already a match for his own, and whose history with her tutor will eventually segue into tragedy. For now, however, comical characters orbit around this central couple with the frequency of a French farce.
That farcical quality persists in the modern day, as we encounter Hannah Jarvis (Susan Angelo), a renowned author researching a book on the Coverly garden and hermitage. Revolving around staid Hannah are yet more comical eccentrics, the most extreme of which is Bernard Nightingale (marvelously mannered Freddy Douglas in a glorious turn), a Byronic scholar who is as intellectually careless as Hannah is rigorous.
Neatly employing Hannah and Bernard as his philosophical exponents, Stoppard commences his story as the Enlightenment slides into the chaos and disorder of the Romantic era. It's a tour-de-force, consistently deemed one of the best plays of the 20th century, demanding agility and intelligence from any would-be interpreters.
Fortunately, Elliott and his superb cast are more than up to the task in this cogent production, which straddles the line between chaos and determinism, comedy and tragedy, life and, of course, death — that ever-present specter always lurking on the periphery.
Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena
When: In repertory (see website for schedule)
Information: (626) 356-3100 Ext. 1, www.ANoiseWithin.org
Running time: 2 hours, 55 minutes