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by Margaret Croyden

COMPOSERS IN VIENNA--David Suchet and Michael Sheen as Salieri and Mozart in "Amadeus." Photo: Catherine Ashmore.

"Amadeus" --A Controversial Mozart by Peter Schaffer
Music Box Theater
239 West 45th Street
Opened December 16,1999
Reviewed by Margaret Croyden January 8, 2000
The most compelling aspect of the revival of "Amadeus," Peter Schaffer's award winning play, is that it is a reminder once again of Mozart's genius. Although the play centers on Mozart's nemesis Antonio Salieri, and his overburdened philosophical discussion with God about the mystery of genius and the prevalence of mediocrity, the heart of the drama is Mozart's life, his music, his suffering, his early death, his poverty and his grisly burial in a pauper's grave.

According to Peter Schaffer, Salieri, the court musician, virtually poisoned Mozart's life by blocking his advancement in Vienna. Schaffer's version has been regularly disputed as a distortion by an overly imaginative playwright who, for some obscure reason, chose to give credence to this unlikely plot. According to most historians, Salieri was no villain and played little part in Mozart's life and Mozart himself was not entirely overlooked. Most of his operas were completely successful and he was known all over Europe. Apparently, Schaffer was interested in dealing with another subject: the mystery of genius. And used Mozart as a foil.

Salieri is portrayed as being well aware of Mozart's genius, but tortured by the fact that God endowed Mozart--characterized as vulgar, unappealing, and child-like--with genius, while he, Salieri, a righteous God-fearing man, is doomed to mediocrity. Most of the play is full of Salieri's talky monologues, philosophical meandering, endless questions and challenges to God. But somehow this pretentious talk remains secondary--even boring at times. The image of Mozart overshadows everything.

Seeing the play in its third incarnation leads one to speculate about Shaffer's naivete. The questions he poses, in this day and age, are retro, irrelevant as well as unanswerable: what is the logic of God's choices, what is genius, how does it happen, why does one person possess it and not another? These queries are like straw men set up to make drama. But not very successfully. Mozart himself--the kind of man he really was, the way he lived, his intellect, his beliefs, and his attitudes toward his milieu-- is unfortunately missing. The role of Mozart, (Martin Sheen) is depicted, on the whole, as an idiot savant, a hyper, silly young man, ill mannered, self centered, overly vain and unduly scatological.

The creator of "Don Giovanni," "The Magic Flute," "The Marriage of Figaro," "Cosi Fan Tutti" and over 600 pieces of glorious music composed in his short life, was more than just an irritating, giggling boy. Mozart was a man of supreme intellect as well as a genius composer; he was an enlightened modern thinker, a man involved with injustice, a satirizer of the class system, and a critic of the cultural cliches of his time.

Why Mr. Schaffer chose a somewhat distorted depiction of Mozart is a mystery that only he can answer. And should. The need for a live multi-dimensional portrait of Mozart--which unfortunately Schaffer could not deliver, and perhaps deliberately chose not to--would have strengthened "Amadeus" and would have diminished some melodramatic aspects of the writing.

The production, however, is stunning. Peter Hall again directed and William Dawdle did an amazing job in the scenery and costumes. David Suchet playing Salieri is on stage for the entire evening and has a difficult task. Schaffer claimed to have humanized the villainous Salieri in that he tries to confesses his misdeeds to Mozart and asks his forgiveness. Strangely enough Mozart does not want to listen. We do not know why, except that he is ill and dying and worried about the Requiem that he was never to finish (parts of which we hear). But the so called revision seems negligible. Salieri remains the consummate villain.

David Suchet is an interesting and accomplished actor, and on the whole fulfills the demanding role of Salieri. He is particularly adroit when he changes from the old man to the young Salieri with merely a change of costume. If he falters at all, it is the Schaffer who is to blame. He has overwritten the Salieri role: it is repetitive, long winded and anti-climatic. We get the point early in the drama.

In the role of Mozart, Martin Sheen is counterpoint to Suchet. Where Suchet is low key, Sheen is unconstrained: eyes bulging, face sweating, body moving continually; he sometimes projects the cliche of the mad genius and this is disconcerting. However in the second act, he has thrown away the giggles and the mannerisms and as the dying Mozart, intent on finishing his masterpiece Requiem, Scheen captures the tragedy of the man, and draws the audience into his realm, forcing one to experience, organically the meaning of Mozart's life. Here we see this remarkable genius, alone, starving, virtually in rags, deserted and on his deathbed hearing the Requiem in his head and slaving to finish it. It is one of the most moving scenes in the theater

That this play sends one home to listen again to the Mozart operas, the Masses, the Requiem (and various pieces of the 600 he wrote), is one of the play's important contributions. In that sense, "Amadeus" serves a worthy cause and proves that despite weaknesses, the theater can excite, can kindle the imagination, and can touch one's emotions. That in itself is a considerable achievement. [Croyden]

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