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Stoppard at Half Strength

[whitespace] ACT's 'Indian Ink' is less than peak Tom Stoppard

By Gina Arnold

Tom Stoppard may well be the only writer of our era to equal the achievements of a more learned past. His use of language and the amazing intricacies of his plots put him up there with writers like Molière, Thackeray and Trollope.

But even Shakespeare had his off-plays (The Merry Wives of Windsor, for example), and sadly, Stoppard's latest, Indian Ink, now being produced by the American Conservatory Theater, is not his finest moment either--that would be The Invention of Love, currently playing in London. Unfortunately, Indian Ink pales even compared to Shakespeare in Love, the Oscar-nominated film co-written by Stoppard and his most populist effort yet.

Indian Ink has a quip or two of its own, but it is still one of the playwright's slightest productions to date. In fact, what is being billed as its "American premiere" is merely a stage adaptation of a 1992 radio drama. (No doubt, this explains why the staging is so poor: at one point, it consists entirely of two people prancing round a tea table.)

The play offers mainly a mishmash of Stoppardisms--academic mysteries and split period pieces--pulled together into a slightly preachy dissertation on the evils of England's colonizing of India.

Happily, to a Stoppard freak like me, there is pleasure even in recognizing the rape of his own past works. "Biography," says one character "is the worst excuse for getting things wrong," echoing A.E. Housman in "The Invention of Love," who says it much more beautifully: "Biography is the sieve through which our real lives fall." Housman himself makes a (verbal) appearance here, while the insufferable Bernard Nightingale from Arcadia is reprised entirely in the character of Eldon Pike (Ken Grantham).

Despite the rampant echolalia, Indian Ink is a fairly enjoyable experience, particularly for aficionados of Anglo-Indian literature like John Masters' Nightrunners of Bengal, J.G. Farrell's The Siege of Krishnapur, E.M. Forster's A Passage to India and Paul Scott's The Raj Quartet. Indeed, it's hard not to think of Scott's epic, since the televised version of The Jewel in the Crown also happened to feature this play's star, Art Malik, as a very similar character.

Stoppard himself spent some of his early years in India and sets out the midcentury problems of independence from the British Raj succinctly. His heroine, Flora Crewe (the remarkable Susan Gibney), is more original, being a cross between Nancy Mitford, Rebecca West and perhaps some lesser member of Virginia Woolf's set. To imagine such a creature set down in Anglo-India in 1930 is just the type of situation Stoppard excels at mining for quips, poignancy and insight.

Besides, even Stoppard at his worst is better than the best American playwright extant. Indian Ink may not cause you to lie awake at night and brood, as did Arcadia, but it will tide you over until The Invention of Love comes to our shores.

Indian Ink plays through March 21 at the Geary Theater in San Francisco. Tickets Are $14-$55. (415/749-2228).

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Web extra to the March 4-10, 1999 issue of Metro.

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