Where has "Indian Ink" been all our lives? Except for a way-way downtown production in 2003, this major Tom Stoppard play from 1995 is only now getting its New York premiere. Thanks to the Roundabout Theatre Company's audacious autumn pairing of his popular 1982 modern romance, "The Real Thing," on Broadway and this more elusive gem of a discovery at Off-Broadway's Pels Theatre, it is possible to luxuriate in two of the many sides of the dazzling British playwright's restless mosaic of a mind.
In director Carey Perloff's incandescent production, exquisitely and generously cast with the great Rosemary Harris and British film actress Romola Garai, "Indian Ink" turns out to be vintage Stoppard from his time-traveling era of "Arcadia" and "The Invention of Love." Like "Arcadia," still his masterwork, this more delicate play poses mysteries about lost lives that survivors, no matter how they try, can never really understand.
We toggle between Jammapur, India, in 1930, the seething twilight of the British Empire, and both England and India in the '80s. In the early scenes, which gracefully overlap with more contemporary ones, Flora Crewe (the lyrical yet powerful Garai) is a beautiful, sexually adventurous, unappreciated poet sent to a warm climate for her fragile health.
Meanwhile, often seated at a tea table to one side of Neil Patel's magically simple set, is Crewe's baby sister, Eleanor Swan (Harris, subtle, luminous and unbelievably 87 years old). She is now an elderly woman fending off queries about Flora by a ridiculously smitten biographer (Neal Huff) and an Indian-born painter (Bhavesh Patel). He is seeking information about his late artist-father, who painted Flora's portrait as she wrote erotic poems that, decades after she died, became literary sensations.
Her painter is played by Firdous Bamji, a wonderfully transparent actor who balances the character's forbidden nationalist passions with his besotted love for English writers. As Flora struggles with fevers and swans around in beautiful flowing sundresses (by Candice Donnelly), she enthralls British officials and a local raja alike.
The play, as heady as top-drawer Stoppard but not quite as intent on showing off, still drops in tantalizing observations about Indian versus imperial history and Hindu gods, not to mention a visceral appreciation of the layers of sensuality in Indian culture.
"Biography is the worst possible excuse for getting people wrong," says Eleanor dryly. It is a conviction in which Stoppard delights in this rich, entertaining, resonantly melancholy play.
WHAT "Indian Ink"
WHERE Laura Pels Theatre, 111 W. 46th St., Manhattan
INFO $89; 212-719-1300; roundabouttheatre.org
BOTTOM LINE Stoppard's 1997 play is a real discovery.