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Rebekah Brockman (Thomasina Coverly) and Jack Cutmore-Scott (Septimus Hodge) in A.C.T.ís production of Tom Stoppardís Arcadia, directed by Carey Perloff. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Tom Stoppard waltzes through time and space in the glittering "Arcadia."

Arguably the masterpiece in a canon that includes groundbreakers from the unbearably witty "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" to the insanely epic "The Coast of Utopia," "Arcadia" glides through the science of love, literature and romance with dazzling fluidity. Carey Perloff's graceful revival, which boasts a nimble cast, captures both the erotic charge and the intellectual pyrotechnics that make it the playwright's most romantic work.

Chaos theory is the guiding principle in a dizzying plot that flips from the day of Lord Byron to the postmodern world.

Set on a lavish Derbyshire country estate, Sidley Park, this cerebral sex farce skips from 1809, when a 13-year-old math prodigy, Thomasina (a radiant Rebekah Brockman), solves the mysteries of an unraveling universe in her diary, to today, when hapless academics search for clues about Byronic genius. Secrets are learned, lost and misinterpreted time and again, as Stoppard's memorable characters match wits and wills for almost three hours.

Lest the science here scare you off, rest assured that the playwright also delves into the mysteries of the heart with geometric precision in this absurdly intricate plot. When Thomasina innocently inquires as to the nature of "carnal embrace," she has no idea that her tutor Septimus (an electric turn by Jack Cutmore-Scott) is lusting after the wife of Chater (a wonderfully comic Nicholas Pelczar), the poet whose work he is in the process of trashing in a nasty review.

Septimus is also chasing after Thomasina's mother, Lady Croom (a tart Julia Coffey), but alas, she is making eyes with Septimus' college buddy Lord Byron. All that bed-hopping occurs amid a vast redesign of the estate from neoclassical to gothic romanticism by landscape architect Richard Noakes (Anthony Fusco).

Almost two centuries later, Bernard Nightingale (Andy Murray), a snooty fame-seeking Oxford don, and an obsessive writer, Hannah (Gretchen Egolf), descend on Sidley and uncover a host of erroneous findings about the end of the Romantic age. When they stumble on Thomasina's old notebooks, their preconceived notions about history and progress quickly come undone. Thomasina's ancestor Valentine (Adam O'Byrne) also stumbles upon her scribbled equations and makes his own startling discovery.

If Stoppard is infamous for shortchanging emotions for ideas, here he embraces both impulses with feverish passion. The flights of fancy in this play have been frequently copied but never paralleled.

To be sure, although Perloff staged the play to great acclaim back in 1995, this is not a perfect revival. The production bogs down in the scenes that take place in the present when academic chatter dominates all other impulses. There's not enough light and heat in the exchanges between Hannah and Bernard and Valentine to illuminate the denser patches in the text.

The modern age seems hopelessly dry in contrast with what has come before. But as soon as the time periods begin to intersect, the production quickly regains its footing.

Shot through with elegant touches from Douglas W. Schmidt's exquisite set to Alex Jaeger's costumes, this "Arcadia" enchants despite its flaws. Never has the second law of thermodynamics had such a vital sense of urgency and suspense.

In "Arcadia," the playwright pulls off one of the most elegant sleights of hands imaginable, seducing the audience into a state of unquenchable yearning. As Stoppard puts it, "When we have found all the mysteries and lost all the meaning, we will be all alone, on an empty shore." You leave the theater both pining for the romance of the past and lusting after the secrets of the future.

Contact Karen D'Souza at 408-271-3772. Read her at www.mercurynews.com/karen-dsouza.

'ARCADIA'

Written by Tom Stoppard

Through: June 9
Where: American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco
Running time: Just under
3 hours, one intermission
Tickets: $20-$95 (subject to change); 415-749-2228, www.act-sf.org