Volume III, Issue II Summer 2004

A witty, surreal riff on God and morality

Murder, adultery and a distraught actress make up rowdy intellectual puzzle

By Lucy Komisar


Written by Tom Stoppard
Directed by David Leveaux

Brooks Atkinson Theatre
256 West 47 Street
Through July 11

Tom Stoppard's acrobatic metaphor about an inquiry into God and morality has the audience jumping through hoops, tripping over puns and falling over themselves in attentive laughter. Needless to say, this is the most intellectually stimulating production on Broadway.

As usual for Stoppard, it's enormously clever and witty – surreal, even – and brilliantly staged by David Leveaux so that it resembles a circus of the mind, challenging the viewer to keep up.

Essie Davis as Dotty
Photo by Hugo Glendinning
The play is a riff on the questions of "Does God exist" and, related, "Is what is good and moral intrinsic and unchanging, or culturally relative." Come prepared to listen carefully to lines delivered with great panache by Simon Russell Beale, one of the best British stage actors. Even the throw-away lines grab your attention. Consider "the late Lord Russell who, though, was punctual."

"Jumpers" was first performed at the Old Vic Theatre, London, in 1972, in a production directed by Peter Wood and starring Diana Rigg and Michael Hordern. It's lost none of its bite or relevance.

George Moore (Beale), a petulant, pixiesh professor of philosophy, is attempting to write a speech about moral absolutes and the existence of God. A professorship of divinity is the prize. But his is not the trendy side of the argument. "When," he wonders, "did the onus of proof moved from atheist to believer?"

Is there "good," or is everything relative? Is there intuition of good? Well, clearly not from the establishment. The self-important, breezily cynical university vice chancellor, Archie (Nick Henson) – George's opponent in the argument – is nattily dressed in a black-and-white striped double-breasted suit that conjures up a 1930s Hollywood gangster. He's got an ethic to match.

Philosophy is represented by a team of acrobats, logical positivists, in yellow warm-ups who form pyramids that collapse on cue. The metaphor of acrobats is opportune: one feels in the middle of an intellectual three-ring circus.

Moore is challenged on the moral absolutes part of his life equation by a young, blonde mentally-scattered wife, Dotty (Essie Davis), an erstwhile musical comedy star whose consultations – more physical than mental – occur with her psychiatrist lover (Archie) in a mirrored bedroom, under glittering globes.

Dotty has lost her grip because of the shock at seeing (on TV), a moon-landing astronaut let slip a fellow into the ether in order to save himself. As Wittgenstein is borrowed, "He's dead. It's very sad, but it's not as if the alternative were immortality." This destroys her sense of the world's morality, and with that, her own equilibrium.

As befits an inquiry into the moral center of the world, the backdrop and ceiling also glitter with stars, and Dotty at one point swings on a crescent moon. (The audience gets into the mood as they enter the theater to the sounds of a swinging "Fly Me to the Moon.")

Though she's portrayed, under Leveaux's direction, as a bit of a bimbo, Dotty makes some prescient comments, including a commentary about the need to definite democracy by more than voting. Like, who counts the ballots?, i.e., who runs the show? Essie Davis, who exudes little-girl charm, makes her appear as something of an idiot savant.

Oh, did I mention the dead body in her closet? One of the acrobats. At a rowdy party that has George calling the police to complain about the noise, someone shot that logical positivist right out from under the pyramid.

And there's more tragedy to come, in the form of the disappearance of Thumper, the rabbit, and an unfortunately underfoot tortoise. Neither the rabbit nor the tortoise wins the race, as it were. George, alas, is a well-meaning bumbler. But Stoppard and Leveaux are not.

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