Debating the existence of God - while doing backflips

Most theatergoers don't expect to get a lesson in moral philosophy with their Playbill. But one of Broadway's recent additions offers enlightenment - with a dash of three-ring circus.

"Jumpers," a British import, is an offbeat murder mystery from "Shakespeare in Love" author Tom Stoppard. It features amateur gymnasts (one of whom is killed in the first scene), a moon landing, a tortoise, and discourses on the existence of God.

There's not a lot of chattering when the curtain's up at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, as Mr. Stoppard's story of a professor struggling with the concept of Deity while largely ignoring his wife's drift into madness requires focused attention. The dialogue is fast, complicated, and filled with humor. The tumbling tends to keep you watching, too.

"It's crazy, but I love that about it," says Essie Davis, who plays the wife, Dorothy. "It has almost every element of theater you can imagine in it, and every character's beliefs are so completely different and their styles of character are so completely different."

The gumbo that is "Jumpers" was written by Stoppard more than 30 years ago. It was first performed in the early 1970s, and revived last year by the National Theatre, one of Britain's top venues. The Broadway production is largely the same as the one performed at the National, though it has been pruned of some of its Britishisms.

"Jumpers" is somewhat political - it is, after all, at a victory party for the Radical Liberals where all the trouble (and tumbling) in this story begins. One of the play's sharpest lines, delivered by Dorothy, is this one: "It's not the voting that's democracy, it's the counting."

Stoppard wrote the piece around the time man was first walking on the moon - an event that, according to Davis, had a great impact on him. In the play, Dorothy - a former musical star - attributes her mental state to her reaction to the moon landing. "Man is on the moon," she says, "his feet on solid ground, and he's seen us whole, all in one go, little - local."

Her husband George, played by Simon Russell Beale, is also struggling with the ways of the universe, as he prepares to publicly debate the issue of God's existence. "To begin at the beginning: Is God?" he dictates to his secretary. "To ask 'Is God' appears to presuppose a Being who perhaps isn't - and thus is open to the same objection as the question, 'Does God exist?

Though "Jumpers" is difficult to sum up, Stoppard has put it this way: "It's about the effort of a man to hold onto an individual sense of morality in conflict with an eternal pragmatism. More simply, it's a conflict between sentiment and cynicism."

As in Britain, the reviews here have been strong, especially for the two leads, who are making their Broadway debuts. Davis's turn here was preceded by several small film roles (including in the "Matrix" sequels) and an award-winning turn as Stella in a recent London production of "A Street Car Named Desire," opposite Glenn Close.

After reading "Jumpers," Davis didn't immediately want to do it. "I was more baffled by the script than enthralled by it," she says in an interview in her dressing room on West 47th Street. "But now it's the opposite," she says.

Davis, an Australian with a hearty laugh, says that at first she thought the play was cold, and not really aligned with her sense of humor. But at the urging of director David Leveaux, she went back and took another look. "The way he talked about it ... made me think I'd read a completely different play."

His advice: Keep in mind that the heart of the play is the relationship between the husband and wife. Without that, the rest doesn't really matter. After reading it again and again - as many as seven times - she signed on.

There were other challenges Davis had to overcome, like being undressed on stage for a short time. At the beginning of the play, she peels off her dress, which is stained with the blood of the victim. "It's not exhibitionist nudity," she explains. "It's the nakedness of a woman alone with a dead body in her own bedroom crying out for help, and not getting any."

By that time, though, the acrobats have kind of stolen the show. The Americans do a better job of trying to tumble badly than their British counterparts, according to Davis. "The basic essence of what they do is still the same," she says, "It was funny, [but] this is funnier."

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