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by Lucy Komisar

Photo from 'The Taming of the Shrew'
Tough Allison Janney takes on a macho Jay Sanders in "The Taming of the Shrew." (Photo: Michal Daniel)
Contents: July 1, 1999:
(1)The Public Theater's "The Taming of the Shrew" at the Delacorte in Central Park
(2)"The Countess" at the Samuel Beckett Theatre
(3)"If Love Were All" at the Lucille Lortel Theatre
(4)The Acting Company's "Tartuffe"
(5)"The Job" at the WPA
(6)The MTC's "La Terrasse"

"The Taming of the Shrew"
by William Shakespeare, directed by Mel Shapiro
Produced by The Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival
Delacorte Theatre, Central Park at 81st Street
Opened July 1, 1999
Closes July 11, 1999
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar, June 27, 1999
How do you deal with "The Shrew" in the age of feminism? Mel Shapiro succeeds in almost all respects. He has created a tough, attractive, forthright Katherine (Allison Janney) who, it is clear, would easily best Petruchio (Jay O. Sanders), even in physical prowess, if it weren't for the social constraints on women. She's not crabby; the people around her are fools, and she just seems annoyed and bored.

When, married to Petruchio, she submits to his insistence that the sun is the moon, she appears to be putting him on. That feeling is enhanced by Shapiro's mounting the travelers, who are returning to Padua, on steeds of the sort that are built with wires and fabric around actors' bodies and make use of their prancing feet. Katherine and horse are skittish and playful, not subdued.

But Shapiro, like other directors, hasn't figured out what to do about the last monlogue, when Katherine, addressing the other wives, declares, "Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper, thy head, thy sovereign." This husband who takes care of them "craves no other tribute at thy hands but love, fair looks and true obedience, too little payment for so great a debt. Such duty as the subject owes the prince, even such a woman oweth to her husband." It gets worse, with Katherine telling wives to place their hands below their husbands' feet!

That scene played straight is a downer, especially at the end of the play staged as farce. When it's part of a classical interpretation, there's nothing you can do, but in a modern version, it needs feminist revision, an ironic approach that winks and mugs at such outrageous notions.

In every other respect, Shapiro's production is utterly charming, clever, comic, and inventive. It makes a campy joke and satire of machismo. Janney and Sanders are perfect in the tongue-in-cheek comedic joust Shapiro has designed for them. One misses only a sense of any romantic interest between them.

The first thing Shapiro does is do away with the notion that the "shrew" is some bad-tempered, nattering gossip. Kate is tough, physical and threatening. She comes out to the garden, with its real flowering plots, in Wellington books with green shirt, tights and apron, wearing garden gloves and carrying a hoe. Rimless glasses give her an intellectual aura.

But she goes at Petruchio with more than words. She threatens him with the hoe, she kicks him to ground, and she gets him in a hammarlock. At his entreaty to "Kiss me, Kate," she kicks him in the head.

Petruchio, a macho fellow in brown leather, seems perplexed by this behavior, though he takes her blows more in surprise than anger. Shapiro lampoons his machismo by having him arrive on a wooden horse and dressing him in a red elastic gymnast's costume, with knee pads and black sneakers. At one point, the couple's brawling is adjudicated by a referee with a whistle and black and white striped regulation shirt. Screams and crashes sound in the background as Petruchio praises Kate's mild behavior.

There are plenty of jokes and campy get-ups for the supporting cast as well. Petruchio's servant, Grumio, portrayed with great comic skill by Mario Cantone, appears in a red cap and attitude that remind one of Peter Lorre. When the new-married Kate walks off dutifully to her bridal chamber, Grumio reaches out to grab away the knife she has secreted.

Continuing the comic cast, Tranio (Peter Jacobson) Lucentio's servant, dresses up a heavy New York accent with attire that runs to Scottish kilts and is a very funny suitor to Kate's younger sister, Bianca. He's the sort that might inhabit a TV sitcom.

Shaprio makes a running joke of interjecting lines in Italian or Latin and translating them on red neon rectangles set on high poles banking the stage. Some of the Latin is articulated by a chorus line of monks in cappuccino robes who sing operatic ditties about satyrs or, in jazzy rhythms, warble lines like, "When passions are in flame, there is nothing like a dame!" Adding tall chefs' hats to their costumes, they do a number throwing pizza dough in the air. They are very, very funny!

Max Wright is wry and understated as the drunkard who is persuaded that he is a lord and dazedly wanders through the play-within-a-play he is watching. Danyon Davis is agreeably perky and high-spirited, lighting up the small role of Biondello, Lucentio's bouncing jester.

The fantasy is set in Karl Eigsti charming garden made lush with banks of real flowers, a wall backed by trees on one side, and a small cupola on columns on the other. The characters are well tailored in Marina Draghici's bright pastiche of traditional and spoofy costumes.

Now, if only someone would do something about that last monologue!

"The Countess"
by Gregory Murphy, directed by Ludovica Villar-Hauser
The Villar-Hauser Theatre Development Fund
Samuel Beckett Theatre, 410 West 42 Street>br> 594-2826, 307-4100
Opening night June 15, 1999
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar June 22, 1999
Gregory Murphy's play has the feel of a Masterpiece Theater or Merchant-Ivory film. It's set in upper class 19th century England, plays with language, is embellished with wit, and deals coolly with the male domination and the hypocrisy rampant in the Victorian upper class. It is enlivened by the fact that it's based on a true story -- an odd triangle between the art critic John Ruskin, his wife Effie, and the painter Everett Millais. Ludovica Villar-Hauser's smooth, clear direction captures the confusion and anguish that must have beset those creatures.

The strong subtext of the play is the subjection of women. Effie (Jennifer Woodward), a beautiful, well-born Scottish woman of 24, has been married for five years to Ruskin (James Riordan), 33, a pretentious, self-absorbed, fatuous critic of art and architecture who reminds one of the people who pontificate with empty, elegant lines in the pages of such publications as "The New York Review of Books." Everett (Jy Murphy), 23, admires Ruskin and is grateful to him for defending the Pre-Raphaelite Movement, which sought to return light, color and realism to painting and which Millais helped found.

The action moves between the elegant drawing room in the home of Ruskin's parents (Frederick Neumann and Honora Fergusson), where John and Effie live, and the run-down cottage in the Scottish Highlands where the couple goes for three months. John has invited Everett to join them, and he discovers that his idol is flawed.

Revered as an intellectual in the art world, Ruskin has more senstitivity to forms in marble (he sighs over a female sculpture) than to people of flesh and blood. He is attracted by the purity and innocence of young girls and repelled by the formed personalities and sexuality of adult women. His ideal women are literally on pedestals, while the real ones are defiled by their "natural depravity."

Ruskin observes that his wife needs to be handled firmly or she'll be capable of "an excess of feeling." He tries to destroy her sense of self, cutting her, carping at her, putting her down intellectually. She, like other real women of the time, pleads, "What's wrong with me?" He tells her she is disgusting -- "Your body is vile and filthy."

In a society where women were often in ignorance about sexual matters and brought up to defer to husbands, she was at a loss to understand and defend her rights.

Millais, cast as the feminist man, sees grace, wit and intelligence in Effie. Ruskin ripostes that it's just "high self-regard, sarcasm and arrogance."

But there's also a daunting woman, Lady Eastlake (Kristin Griffith), a wonderful Bluestocking who writes for the "Quarterly Review" and is the wife of the president of the Royal Academy. A voice of Victorian feminism, she denounces religious support for female servitude and the Ruskins' desire for a daughter-in-law that is docile, malleable, and decorative.

The cast is uniformly excellent, inhabiting their characters like second skins. Woodward as Effie moves from a cranky perturbed melancholy to steely, contained determination. James Riordan brings a slightly devilish feel and permanent sneer to the cold, arrogant, overbearing Ruskin, a character of near Dickensian evil . Murphy is open, almost bubbly as Millais, exuding passionate charming innocence, as kind and decent as Ruskin is twisted. Griffith is a delight as the forthright, assertive Lady Eastlake. And Fergusson and Neumann are wonderfully overbearing as the tight-faced, dyspeptic parents.

Christopher Lione's period costumes and Mark Symczak's set add to the play's charm.

"If Love Were All"
by Sheridan Morley, words and music by Noel Coward
directed by Leigh Lawson, choreography by Niki Harris
Produced by Julian Schlossberg, Mask Productions, Redbus, Mark S. Golub, Bill Haber
Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street
Opened June 10, 1999
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar, June 5, 1999
This is a confection of the sort Noel Coward would have liked, with a degree of charm and style, if not the sort of singing talent that bowls one over. In fact, the best scenes are not the sophisticated musical numbers, but a waggish vaudeville routine and bits from Coward's famous plays, "Private Lives," "Blithe Spirit" and "Still Life," which became the movie "Brief Encounter."

The pastiche put together by Coward's biographer Sheridan Morley is a history of the theatrical careers and friendship of Gertrude Lawrence (Twiggy Lawson) and Noel Coward (Harry Groener), the first an actress most famous for playing Anna in "The King and I," and the other the witty, urban, ironic playwright and songwriter. They met in 1913 as child actors, he wrote several plays for her, and they exchanged letters and emotional support throughout their lives. "We enjoyed each other's company in almost every way," he explains, in an oblique reference to his homosexuality.

Tony Walton's understated set looks like a fashion display -- a black pyramid of steps edged by metal railing, lit by glass chandeliers, and backed by a wall of gathered silk. There's also a chair, a chaise, and a piano topped with decanters. Walton has dressed the two in the elegant garb their images demand -- Lawson in clinging white gown and Groener in smoking jacket or white cutaway.

But they stop the show when they eschew elegance for comic red fright wigs, sailor suits and Cockney accents in a vaudeville "Anyone seen my ship?" followed by an equally funny number as hobo clowns in top hat and white rolled-up shirt fronts.

They are delightful in an excerpt from "Blithe Spirit," in which the deceased Elvira returns as a ghost to haunt her husband's new married life. Lawson shows herself an adept comedian. They do an acidly comic "Private Lives" as the divorced Amanda and Elliot who end up on opposite sides of a balcony while on honeymoon with new spouses. And they make you want to see more of them in the bittersweet "Still Life."

Groener's performs engagingly in the famous "Mad Dogs and Englishman," which Coward wrote on the way back from a steaming lunch in Singapore. ("In Bengal to move at all is rarely if ever done, but Mad Dogs and Englishman go out in the midday sun.") And they sing sentimental renditions of "Mad about the Boy," and "l'll see you again."

However, there's not much evidence of the devastating Coward wit. The best line is a description of a self-absorbed actress as having a life that is a hermetically sealed projection room where she watches her own rushes.

One is also reminded with a shock that Coward could be very nasty. "Don't Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs. Worthington," is a hostile attack on a young girl's physical imperfections. And he could be puerile, as in the syrupy "I Like America," which is the only other truly bad number.

Unfortunately, though both Lawson and Groener have charm, they don't have memorable voices. For some reason Lawson has been directed to sing in a nasal manner with a slight trill; it makes her sound like an old record. It's been pointed out that Coward and Lawrence didn't have great voices either. But they made up for it with a panache that these performers lack.

by Moliere, directed by Mark Ax based on the 1998 Julliard production directed by Garland Wright
Produced by The Acting Company
The Playhouse at St. Clement's, 423 West 46 Street
Opened May 20, 1999
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar, May 28, 1999
What a wonderful idea the late Garland Wright had to make Moliere's Tartuffe into a creepy New Age guru, a womanizing charlatan with long black hair, floor-length black robe, and large silver pectoral cross! In this version Mark Ax, who worked Wright, has remounted the play based on Wright's original production, using it to good effect. The treatment makes "Tartuffe" seem modern at the same time that actors wear costumes of the 17th century.

The play, popular since it premiered in 1664, turns on the weakness of the aristocrat Orgon, who lets himself be taken in by the priest, Tartuffe, promising the man his daughter's hand and even signing over his estate. Finally, Orgon's wife Elmire, who has rejected Tartuffe's advances, arranges the favorite theatrical "you hide and I'll show you this dreadful man's true colors" ploy. With Orgon concealed under the table, Elmire allows Tartuffe to make advances.

Now Orgon sees the truth, but it's too late. Tartuffe has the legal deeds and orders the family off the estate. He even betrays Orgon to the King with sensitive papers the poor naif left with him for safe-keeping. But the clever King, whom the politic Moliere recognized as the most important member of his audience, sees through the fakery, though that deus ex-machina provides a too facile ending.

Fakery, of course, abounds at present, and Ax gives the play a lively contemporary feel. The young folk of the family dash around like hyped-up participants at a punk rock orgy. Grandmother, distraught at their behavior, is parodied by Dana Slamp as a wind-up-doll with diminutive steps that make her seem to be rolling. Tartuff's servant (Michael Wiggins), in black Nehru suit, seems like another bit of machinery, a sci fi automaton.

The most powerful scene is the near rape of Elmire (Rayme Cornell). Brought up in a society with a horror of scandal, she decides to keep quiet about Tartuffe's first sexual proposition. Then, rather than playing for comedy, Ax gives us a picture of what women feel when they are forced by circumstance to put up with men's unwelcome advances -- something quite real, especially for farm girls of Moliere's time who were abused by predatory aristocrats. The scene when Tartuffe tries to force himself on Elmire is unsettling, almost violent. Ax's direction and Cornell's compelling performance are welcome changes from the convention that makes a joke out of sexual assault.

There's lots of physical action and slapstick by the others, with some of the shticks calling up "I Love Lucy." Valere (Tim Barker) and his fiancee, Mariane (Anne Bates), whose lack of gumption makes her really her father's daughter, race up and down stairs like truly mad lovers. Son Damis (Clark Scott Carmichael) makes a fine show of indignation. Dorine, the interfering ladies' maid in red corkscrew curls who seems smarter than the rest, is given an appealing, over-the-top performance by Kristen Gass. Andrew McGinn recreates Orgon as a timid, dyspeptic jerk.

Troy Hourie's minimal but effective set features a banquet table covered with blue velvet, gilt chairs with red satin cushions, black columns with gold capitals, a black balcony, and black-paneled walls. The 17th century elements and modern lines create a fusion of both epochs.

The only problem with the production is that performers sometimes say lines in a singsong and rhythmic manner that obscures their sense. Still, this is an inventive "Tartuffe" that deserves notice.

"The Job"
written and directed by Shem Bitterman
Produced by WPA Theatre
519 West 23 Street
Opened June 15, 1999
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar, June 13, 1999
There is superb acting in this rather quirky, bizarre, absurdist musing on the desperation caused by unemployment -- and on the curious role played by religion in such circumstances.

A somewhat goofy, hulking man named Frank (Barry Cullison), who now calls himself Brand, wants to give up his hand-to-mouth street life, get a job and go straight. Then he can marry Mags (Deborah Offner), who is also unemployed. She insists that she doesn't mind working; she just doesn't like schedules. She'd sell drugs, but can't break in; so she's a hooker.

Unfortunately, Frank doesn't have much in the way of skills. And he has a murky past. At an employment agency, he encounters John (Robert Cicchini), who talks like a bureaucrat and berates him for his lack of get-up-and-go, but finally promises him a job. That turns out to be a service demanded by another client, Martin (Ron Orbach), an engineer about the same age as Frank, who has lost his job and can't pay the mortgage or support his wife and kids.

The only one doing well in the scruffy world Frank inhabits is Jim (Jack Stehlin), the cool, phony, revival preacher who wears a black raincoat and a furtive expression. When he starts preaching a sermon, it takes a few minutes to realize he's spewing double talk -- or pie in the sky prescriptions that won't help Frank or Mags.

The irony of the play is that the only way Martin can take care of his family is to be murdered for the insurance. He explains, "It's a mercy killing." Of course, there might be other ways to raise money. In a riff on the plaints of the middle class, who after all have a lot more than the underclass, Martin says, "I want to sell the house, but the time's not right."

A subtext is Bitterman's ironic commentary on religion, which is called on in different ways by each of the characters in their quest for survival. Jim does well collecting money as a charlatan churchman, Martin puts on phylacteries for Jewish prayer in the moments before his expected death, and Frank hopes for reincarnation to get another chance.

In the beginning, you squirm and wonder how you can stick it out. It's so unrelievedly grim, even tedious. But it's worlth seeing for the cast's sharp-etched interpretations of their characters. Barry Cullison is outstanding as Frank, using splendid body language, with ducking head and jerking motions, to capture the insecurity and fearfulness of the man. Deborah Offner instills the floozy with a sweetness and fragility that underlies a surface harshness. And Jack Stehlin is as smarmy and threatening a conman priest as you'd ever meet.

J. Gregor Veneklasen's set, a dingy space with high windows, a single hanging light, and large black boxes for bed and desk, creates the feel of the basement that is the permanent world of the underclass.

"La Terrasse"
by Jean-Claude Carriere, American version by Mark O'Donnell
directed by Mike Ockrent
Produced by Manhattan Theatre Club
City Center, 131 West 55 Street
Opening night June 8, 1999
Closes July 25,1999
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar June 10, 1999
You can give an intellectual patina to a TV sitcom, but it's still just a sitcom. "La Terrasse" is a rather inane slapstick comedy with a few good lines and situations and an attempt at the end to make a philosophical statement. It seems part of the same curious French penchant for finding profundities in clowning that made a cult figure of Jerry Lewis.

This play is described as about "our contemporary struggle for a sense of home and condition of privacy" and about people "on the move and always looking ahead for their source of happiness" with "a palpable sense of agitation and frustration beneath the comic antics." Or, "Everywhere people fight, leave each other for strangers. The future belongs to the wanderers. There are nomads and there are prisoners. There are no other options."

I didn't see anything except the comic antics. Madeleine (Sarah Knowlton) and Etienne (Jeremy Davidson) live together in what is an unsatisfactory arrangement for her. One day at lunch, he reads the paper and, without looking up, answers in customary monosyllables. When she says, "I'm going out" and he inquires, "Will you be gone long?", she responds, "I'll be gone forever." That certainly gets his attention. He can't afford the rent on their comfortable, understated but fashionable white and beige apartment. While he's wondering what to do about his life, a real estate agent (Annie Golden) arrives with a client (Margaret Hall), the wife of a retired general. She is a chic Parisian in beige dress and matching coat, spectator pumps, and the de rigueur scarf.

Madeleine, by the way, is no slouch, with a gray crepe skirt, knit tube, and long matching coat. Etienne, on the other hand, wears slacks and v-neck sweater that are as nondescript as his personality. (In French plays, you have to parse the clothes.) Madeleine is supercilious, sleek, at once cold and smoldering, and steely as her color scheme. She is furious at Etienne, for what obviously is a serious lack of communication.

But the real center of the story is Mr. Astruc (David Schramm), a slightly mysterious, obese, disheveled man in his 40's in a creased brown cotton suit who arrives to look over the apartment and promptly makes himself at home -- to the point of demanding lunch, using the phone to deal with a legal problem, and even sacking out on the bed for a nap.

Schramm is very good as the overbearing fellow, and he's the only reason to watch the play. You never buy into the plot line. Some of it obviously resonates in France. The piggy Astruc demands, "Is this cheese spread? Is this the only kind you have? And red wine please!" This man takes over Madeleine and Etienne's apartment, drinks their wine, and is obnoxious. Why don't they throw him out? Astruc's friend Maurice (Bruce Norris) arrives and turns out to be equally insufferable.

The two unattractive men, one grossly fat, the other chicken-bone skinny, talk like connoisseurs about "well-built women." Maurice sits near Madeline, leers, and suggests she run away with him to subsist on his parents' money. He tells her insultingly, "I know many good stories, and I can imitate animals." Astruc interjects, "Women do like to laugh." Alas for Martin, he goes around asking many women to run away with him, but they all turn him down. "I don't understand it," he screams. We do. Is this a commentary on arrogant men?

Madeleine meanwhile is upset because she's reminded that Etienne didn't know color of her eyes. And the others start insinuating that it's strange the new lover who is supposed to pick her up hasn't arrived.

The minor characters have their own problems. The giddy, redheaded real estate agent complains about "men who visit and tour the premises but never sign a lease." The general (Tom Aldredge), a frail, blind fellow who says "excuse me" when he bumps into furniture, is the object of less than solicitous care by his bored wife. In what is probably a standing French joke, the general is worried about gas ovens, which gives the agent the chance to say that the oven is German-made. "Well that reassures me," he replies.

The terrace in the title is on the roof and provides a place for the characters to prove their instability, their malevolence and their hardiness. And from which the wind can whistle and blow in leaves.

Then we get to the philosophy. Etienne declares he doesn't understand "why we meet, why we separate." Neither does the audience, at least not about these folks, other than the fact that the lives of the women revolve unsatisfactorily around men who appear pretty substandard.

The play itself is boorish and silly, with no underlying wit or cleverness. Mike Ockrent directs it a laJerry Lewis, which may signal profundity to the French, but falls flatter than a pratfall in New York. [Komisar]

Theater critic Lucy Komisar gives pre-show briefings and post-show discussions for theater parties to enrich playgoers' experiences. She'll also help find an appropriate show and make or advise on arrangements. Interested parties may telephone (212) 929-1610 for information.

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