One of the constants in Boston theater used to be that any new Tom Stoppard play would make its way here quickly, most often to the Huntington Theatre Company. That hasn't been true lately, as the Huntington canceled its production of 1997's "The Invention of Love," and no one staged 1995's "Indian Ink" when it first came out. Whether any local theater has the wherewithal to tackle the newly Tony-winning trilogy "The Coast of Utopia" is a very iffy proposition.
Hats off, then, to Small World Big Sky Productions for taking on "Indian Ink," which centers on a fictional British poet, Flora Crewe , and her culture clash of a visit to India in 1930 as British rule was being increasingly challenged. Though the play isn't as ambitious as most of Stoppard's work, including "Travesties" and "The Real Thing," it does go back and forth between the '30s and the '80s and calls for a cast of 13, including numerous Asian characters. Small World called upon NetSAP-Boston, a network of South Asian professionals, to fill out the cast.
The company's producing artistic director, Sarah Krohn, who also directed, has said that she was drawn to the play's personal elements. During her visit, Flora is painted by an Indian artist who is both intrigued and repelled by her provocativeness; decades later, Flora's conservative sister, Eleanor Swan, debates British-Indian relations with an American biographer of Flora and with the painter's son, who emigrated to Britain.
It's in these meetings between people -- and between worlds -- that the production can't get a solid enough grasp on Stoppard. This relatively young company seems to have a taste for plays in which the classic meets the contemporary -- Tony Kushner's adaptation of "The Illusion" and Frank McGuinness's version of "A Doll's House" are previous productions. Give Krohn points for taste, then, and for directing the time changes here quickly and skillfully. For the most part, though, the actors don't have the seasoning to capture the flavor of Stoppard's wry humor or to get at the heart of what the playwright is trying to say about assimilation. What Stoppard brings to the table is a fresher approach than Paul Scott or E.M. Forster about how the English-Indian experience played and plays into contemporary identity -- what makes someone British? Or Indian? The playwright himself is a Jewish Czech émigré, so this is no mere intellectual concern for Stoppard.
Except for Jean Sheikh's smart (in every sense ) portrayal of Eleanor Swan, the poet's sister, the actors don't bring much charisma to the parts or connection to one another. As Flora Crewe, Janelle Mills shows promise -- the poetry readings are particularly lovely -- but there's not enough modulation in her performance.
The production is selling out and has added performances. But without sharper delineation of character, "Indian Ink" feels like not quite the real thing.