Tom Stoppard's astonishing mind, devastating wit and seemingly godlike knowledge of just about everything in the history of man are evident in Indian Ink, Main Street Theater's season opener.
Exotic, erotic and deeply romantic, this halfway successful play, directed by Rebecca Greene Udden, is filled with some absolutely grand moments. The best come when Stoppard focuses on the lush love story at the center of the script. Flora Crewe is a turn-of-the-century British poet who has sailed to India "for her health." Once there she meets Nirad Das, an Indian painter who bicycles into her life offering to make her portrait.
Only a writer of Stoppard's breadth and intelligence could pull off such a stilted conceit. After all, Flora and Nirad don't really do anything. There is Flora, sitting at the table scribbling away at a surprisingly beautiful poem about heat and the small beads of sweat slipping down her body. Behind stands Nirad, at his easel, painting her graceful and very proper English profile. No action here.
But what fiery fights fly across the veranda (part of Boris Kaplun's terrific set) as these two artists go to work painting and writing and falling in love. These characters are angry and passionate. The arrogant Flora has come to India with a naughty past. Nirad, on the other hand, is an enigmatic, lonely widower. Each is full of opinions. And each has something to teach the other. Art, culture, religion and the strange history of empiricism are topics that burn up the space between the two as they argue and wound each other, ultimately finding mutual respect.
This verbal energy is smelted into stunning love scenes by the actors. Gwendolyn McLarty as the cool, blond and way-too-ironic Brit is a perfect match for the beautifully elegant Illich Guardiola, the demure and fiercely intelligent Nirad. There is swoony chemistry, and it is the very best sort. If only Stoppard could have found a way to say all that he wanted through these two characters.
Instead, the script has a far less successful story frame. In it we are fast-forwarded into the 1980s. We meet Flora's surviving old-lady sister Eleanor (Joan Fox) and a bumbling American college professor who wants to pen Flora's biography. Eleanor believes that a "biography is the worst possible excuse for getting people wrong." So she sends the intrusive scholar to India with a suitcase full of misconceptions about his subject.
Eleanor also believes England's empirical rule turned India into a "proper country." This old-school opinion comes under fire when she encounters Nirad's grown son, Anish Das (Gopal Mohapatra). He comes to call one afternoon after seeing Flora's collected works in a London bookstore window. Anish wants to learn more about his mysterious deceased father.
Every time Eleanor shares letters or keepsakes with her curious guests, the past is invoked and back we go as the memory springs to life. This corny device (Stoppard employs it brilliantly in other plays) would work if the modern story were as richly textured as the one from the past.
The same themes concerning empires and art are covered in the past and the present. Anish and Eleanor don't see eye to eye on the value of empirical rule, which is made clear when they discuss history. An 1857 English-Indian battle is referred to by Anish as an "uprising," while Eleanor terms it a "mutiny." But these predictable opposing points of view don't create enough dramatic conflict to make the scenes visceral and exciting. Instead, we wait, impatiently, for Flora and Nirad to return.
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Likewise, the scenes with pompous professor Eldon Pike (Joseph Hudson) -- they focus on the illusive nature of art and the artist -- don't come close to saying as much as those that dwell on love. The biographer gets everything about Flora wrong, of course. And he travels through India with his narrow-minded Western ideology firmly intact, believing that Indians need to be taught how to operate such simple devices as a camera. Again, the predictable nature of his foolishness is too reductive.
Scenes from the past articulate the violence of empirical rule with much more complexity and drama. Flora lives among Indian servants and British troops. She sees the inequities and, in her utterly sardonic way, wonders why the Indians "do not cut off all [the Brits'] heads and say nothing more about it."
Nirad, meanwhile, sees the world from another perspective, telling Flora that "Krishna said, 'Whatever god man worships, it is I who answer their prayers.' " This might sound a bit too Gandhi-like, but it is an effective and moving articulation of the vast ocean of differences between the two cultures -- differences that are overcome for a moment by art and by the love shared by these two artists.
Indian Ink runs through October 17 at Main Street Theater, 4617 Montrose, (713)524-7606. $15-$20.