It is not often I see a flawless production of a brilliant play, one which transports me in time and space. One where I stop taking notes and just give in because I have no choice. “Indian Ink” by Tom Stoppard, finally getting its New York premier courtesy of the Roundabout Theatre Company at the Laura Pels Theatre, is a flawless production. It is brilliantly acted, beautiful to look at, compelling, moving, and smart.
The play alternates between 1980’s England and 1930’s India with Eleanor (the estimable Rosemary Harris) reading her younger sister’s letters to Eldon Pike (Neal Huff, appropriately irritating). Her sister, Flora Crewe (Romola Garai, very fine), was a poet, famous only after her death, and Eldon, who has already published her poems, is now publishing her letters. But he wants more than that; a biography of Flora is in the works, and he believes Eleanor does not know this. He is wrong. Not only does Eleanor know, she disapproves. As she says, “…biography is the worst possible excuse for getting people wrong.”
With only a few props against a vibrantly colored set, the play shifts elegantly and effortlessly in time (take that, Broadway), and begins just as Flora arrives from the UK. She is there ostensibly to work, but really for her health, which she believes no one else knows about. An Indian painter, Nirad Das (Firdous Bamji, superb) asks her to pose for a portrait, and she obliges. Despite some cultural misunderstandings and miscommunications (Das admires everything British, much to Flora’s dismay), their artistry – painter and poet – creates an erotically charged bond between them.
Stoppard interweaves the personal with the political: there is the generational defense of “The Empire” by Eleanor and the long-term effects colonization had on India. There is a search for identity by Das’s son Anish (Bhavesh Patel, terrific), and he is not the only one. There is a learning curve on Flora’s part, about art and the rich cultural and spiritual history of India. There is the shifting meaning of the word “home.” And there is inevitable loss.
Director Carey Perloff’s production is nuanced, and beautifully, achingly realized. Nothing here is heavy-handed. “Indian Ink” is one of the best things I’ve seen, and has stayed with me. In this busy, bustling Manhattan world, that’s saying something.