Arcadia, Goodman Theatre. Tom Stoppard’s entertaining but overrated comedy offers variations on the theme of rationalism versus emotionalism. The women are the rationalists: Thomasina, an early-19th-century teenager who astounds her tutor Septimus with visionary diagrams that anticipate chaos-theory computer models, and Hannah, a contemporary scholar studying the history of the estate where Thomasina lived. Skipping back and forth across time, Stoppard examines his heroines’ relationships with the men in their lives: Septimus gently rebuffs Thomasina’s sexual invitations while reveling in her brilliance, and modern-day literary critic Bernard Nightingale flirtatiously spars with Hannah, suggesting the arrogant sexism and intellectual laziness beneath his eccentric charm.

Decorating these twin romances are witty, wordy digressions on subjects seemingly as far afield as physics, landscape gardening, and the erotic adventures of Lord Byron. But the characters’ interactions are the core of the play–and the source of its weakness. Stoppard intends a sort of chaos theory of the heart, but his manipulations leave no room for lifelike unpredictability. Ironically, the characters in Stoppard’s Travesties–who come almost entirely from history and literature–are more moving than these two-dimensional creations; perhaps the play would carry more weight if its quicksilver language were performed with greater feeling than it is under Michael Maggio’s direction.

Like a Brother Cadfael mystery novel, Arcadia dabbles in historical and scientific arcana that will make it seem intellectually adventurous art to some rather than the superficial escapism it is, so a flattered audience can go home thinking it’s seen Something Important. –Albert Williams