“Arcadia” and the Grid

Todd Heisler/

A recent Times article commemorated the 200th birthday of “The Grid:” that hard-knuckled, 90-degree matrix that set New York’s streets in unsurprising, rectangulinear order. Excepting some of downtown’s eccentricities, the feature tells us, the grid “gave developers and, later, tourists order, access and predictability.”

How very Newtonian, Tom Stoppard might say. His “Arcadia,” a revival of which just opened on Broadway, explores similar ideas of order and chaos, predictability and chance by alternating between two periods, ultimately tracking physics’ and philosophy’s journey from optimism (in 1809) to a more complicated, less organized universe (in 2011).

The New York Grid could be said to represent classicism, or 1809 “Arcadia:” It’s reasoned, clear, and lucid. It’s the ordered cosmos Thomasina, “Arcadia’s” brilliant, young heroine, is taught to see. Whether it’s Fermat’s last theorem, advanced algebra, or any of the other brain-cramping topics her tutor brings up, order is the final, reachable goal. Surprise is tamed by logic and structure.

New York’s city commissioners, working a mere two years after the fictional Thomasina, operated under similarly classically based, optimistic principles. Sam Roberts (author of the Times article) writes, “The urban grid goes back beyond Hippodamus of Miletus, the Greek urban planner, who, like the street commissioners, viewed the matrix as a manifestation of ‘the rationality of civilized life.’” City structure could manufacture personal integrity, officials believed.

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Theater Terroir

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In theater, venue is destiny. A play exists acutely, sometimes gloriously, in a specific, unrepeatable place. Different spaces make different demands of performers and audience members; what comes of those particularities greatly informs a show and becomes an inseparable part of a theatergoing experience.

David West Read’s new play, “The Dream of the Burning Boy,” is recent proof of this dictum. Now playing at Roundabout’s black box as part of the “Underground” series, “Dream’s” super-intimate house renders quietness a virtue of the highest degree. When a teacher (Reed Birney) and a student (Josh Caras) spar over an English paper (“Losing My Virgil-itly”), the tiny space allows them to speak at normal, sometimes exceedingly small, levels. That style, in turn, imprints itself into the DNA of the show and becomes an inexorable part of the play’s experience.

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Compulsion: The Cliffs-Notes


Anne Frank enthusiast Sid Silver guides “The Diary of a Young Girl” to publication and great success; he turns into an obsessive, hissing tiger of a man when his play adaptation is endlessly ignored. As Sid Silver (based on a real-life figure Meyer Levin), Mandy Patinkin gets to use every brooding and explosive bone in his body.


Sid Silver is to “Compulsion” as the Winkelvoss twins were to “The Social Network.” Each claimed to be the fount of inspiration; each lost years mired in legal fracas. Courtroom drama! Money! Ambition! How’s this for an ad campaign: “ ‘Compulsion’: ‘The Social Network’ of Off-Broadway.”

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Whatever Happened to My Sweet Girl?

If the rumors are true, Barbara Streisand is about to headline a film version of the great musical “Gypsy.” That news throws yet another log on the pop culture fire that is “Tiger Motherhood,” a gold mine of public debate and fascination. Tales of Tiger Motherhood generally track ambitious/ domineering/ psychotic parents and their absurd quest to assert power over their children. “Gypsy” is but one of three recent, blockbuster, Hitler-mother stories. Let’s examine:

1. “The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.”

Amy Chua’s certifiably insane parenting thriller charts her own militaristic path to matriarchal glory. No doubt you’ve read excerpts of this meant-to-shock primer in Chinese family values, but I can’t resist adding to the chorus of outrage. By stamping out play dates, fun, happiness, or any other generally recognized marker of childhood, Chua manages to manufacture accomplished musicians out of her innocent daughters. Never mind that Lulu and Sophie don’t really care about the piano or violin, classical music is hard and prestigious, so it’s their destiny. End of story.

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Spring Fever

It’s marquee season on Broadway — the moment just before spring shows go into full swing, and freshly postered theaters taunt their half-baked wares to hungry passers-by. Every new show is a potential hit, and this sense of promise makes a theater-lover giddy with ticket-buying anticipation.

What to see first is the real question: “How to Succeed,” starring a wandless Daniel Radcliff? Or “Book of Mormon,” whose workshops were such a smash that reviews might be irrelevant? (As the show’s pervasive ad material frequently reminds us, “Vogue” has already surmised that “Mormon” might be “the funniest musical of all time.”) Then, of course, there’s “Catch Me if You Can,” the new project from the team behind that most rapturous of musical-theater perfections, “Hairspray.” Can they live up to their poppy, Tony-gilded reputation? Let’s hope so!

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