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by Lucy Komisar

Photo from 'The Dead'
Blair Brown and Christopher Walken discover the power of past sorrows. (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Contents: March 4, 2000:
(1)"The Dead" by Playwrights Horizons at The Belasco Theatre
(2)"Amadeus" at The Music Box
(3)"Waiting in the Wings" at The Walter Kerr Theatre
(4)"Wrong Mountain" at The Eugene O'Neill Theatre

"The Dead"
by Richard Nelson, based on story by James Joyce, directed by Richard Nelson
Produced by Playwrights Horizons
The Belasco Theatre, 111 West 44 St.
Opened January 11, 2000.
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar January 13, 2000
"The Dead" has had an unusual and unexpected affect on theater-goers in New York. It opened on the small stage of Playwrights Horizons for the company's customary six-week run. It seemed an odd recipe, a musical based on a James Joyce novella. But the Joyce story has been adapted and staged by Richard Nelson in a manner so moving and elegant, that the play clings to you long after you've left the theater. It has transferred to the Belasco on Broadway for an open-ended run.

People move around the Misses Morkans' drawing room as if they were set figures in a charming, impressionistic chamber piece, almost an operetta. You have the sense of peering through a key hole at peoples' lives and intimacies, all seeming rather distant at the first, but when slowly they are all woven together, the pageant gathers power, and you are engrossed and the rest of the world recedes.

The sisters Julia (Sally Ann Howes) and Kate (Marni Nixon) have for 30 years been giving a Christmas party for their close friends and relatives in the Dublin house they now share also with their niece, Mary Jane (Emily Skinner). They're all music teachers, and they and some of their students fill the room with the sounds of piano, violin, cello, flute and accordion. Shaun Davey's music, based on Irish folk songs and melodies, imparts a bittersweet flavor and enriches the mood.

Among the guests, Gabriel Conroy (Christopher Walken), the sisters' nephew, is nervous, sweet, shy, with an half-quizzical expression. His wife Gretta (Blair Brown), who wears bright red to match her hair, is outgoing, but also mysterious.

The friends include Miss Molly Ivors (Alice Ripley) in the green jacket of an Irish nationalist. She sings a song about the hero Parnell and calls Gabriel a "West Briton," sniping at his lack of patriotism. She is spunky and exudes vitality. Gabriel is disconcerted by her confidence -- and he hates patriotic songs. But whether it's Christmas or the force of her argument, he joins a jig.

Mrs. Malins (Paddy Croft), an old woman in mournful black, is cranky and upset, expecting the worst from her drunken son Freddy (Stephen Spinella). There's also the avuncular Mr. Browne (Brian Davies) and Bartell D'Arcy, an opera singer (John Kelly).

The party guests sing and dance and partake of a meal. The events are so subtle, they sometimes take you by surprise. The sisters sing a song of women grieving because of failed love: "When a young lady stoops to folly and finds that men betray, what charms can soothe her melancholy, what art can wash her grief away?" It's an odd song to sing, or a terrible one, reflecting unspoken regret in their lives. That is intensified when the three Misses Morkan perform a delightful rendition of "Naughty Girls." We know, of course, the melancholy is that they haven't had the chance to be naughty at all. To emphasize the underlying theme, Darcy, the countertenor, sings about the drug of love.

But the power of love is shown most in the hidden sorrow of Gretta, who keeps a place in her heart for a young boy who loved her many years before and who died at 17. This is the power of the dead, the pain of someone knocking from below, the link between the living and dead, which gives the story its title.

The theme of sorrowful lost love is interwoven with the force of nationalism: "Ireland, we hold her honor in our hand...take a stand." Grief for lost lover, grief for lost country.

The party-goers do circle dances and reels as the set of simple chairs and columns sparkles under flickering gaslights. When they sit around the dining table, dinner is a siege and attack. As much as they are together, you get the sense of them being apart, of having secret pains that separate one from the other.

The actors give a finely tuned ensemble performance, with the sense that they are eternally part of the same tapestry. Spinella is superb as the giggly, silly, sad, alcoholic Teddy. Walken is a sensitive, private Gabriel Conroy, and Blair Brown a rich, complex Gretta, his wife. Sally Ann Howes and Marni Nixon bring a poignant dignity to the sisters. Alice Ripley is a bright, vibrant Molly Ivors, and Paddy Croft sensitively portrays her opposite as a pinched woman humiliated by her son's drunkenness.

by Peter Shaffer, directed by Peter Hall
Produced by Kim Poster, PW Productions, Adam Epstein, Pace Theatrical Group/SFX Entertainment, and Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre
The Music Box, 239 West 45 Street
Opened December 15, 1999
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar December 17, 1999
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Michael Sheen) is a poignant figure in the revival of Peter Shaffer's 1980 "Amadeus." This intriguing, moving, elegantly staged play about the corrosive power of jealousy is directed, as in the original, by Peter Hall, but Hall and Shaffer have made a few changes. The silly, clownish fellow who inspired a certain distaste has been replaced by a likeable young man whose giggles seem to express insecurity rather than outrageous ill breeding. And his nemesis, Antonio Salieri (David Suchet), seems less evil, or at least not without conscience as he commits the acts that will riddle him with guilt in old age. The result is to leave the audience with more compassion and understanding for each of them. And also to make them less unreal archetypes and more real-life mirrors.

Shaffer's play is based on the story told before in "Mozart and Salieri," a play by Aleksandr Pushkin and an opera by Rimsky-Korsakov.

As a child, Salieri had pledged service to God in exchange for greatness as a musician. At 31, he is a court composer in Vienna with a burning ambition to be first royal Kapellmeister to Emperor Joseph II. Then Mozart, five years younger, arrives, brilliant and arrogant with the adulation he has received throughout Europe. Salieri is at once enraptured by Mozart's music and in jealous agony at the beauty of it. He feels himself at war with God over his creature, Mozart, mocked even by the name, "Amadeus," Latin for "love of God," and he determines that this creature must be destroyed.

Salieri, played brilliantly by Suchet, is at the center of the show, from his moment of regret as a toothless, stoop-shouldered old man to his flashbacks to the main events of the play. Suchet's shifts in age, made in full audience view and without change in make-up, are a testament to his virtuosity.

Sheen recreates Mozart in all his complex contradictions -- giggly, antic, frenetic, egotistical, warped a bit by the adoration he's known as a child musical genius, but also joyous, even cherubic in his great curly blond mop.

Fortunately, nothing has altered the dry wit and comic irony of Shaffer's play, which still has a lot to say about contemporary times through the prism of the past.

Salieri rails against the mediocrity of officials, royalty and bankers. Even in his evil, he has the virtue of good taste. He complains that "the cats in the courtyard are singing Rossini."

Mozart's great operas are woven into the script in an absorbing way to illustrate how he told stories of real people rather than traditional operatic myths. "Don Giovanni," for example, represented his father. The rituals and sentiments of his Masonic lodge inspired "The Magic Flute."

The set and costumes by William Dudley are as stylish as Mozart's music. The palace glitters with mirrors and chandeliers, behind window glass are the facades of houses in the facing street, and the floor is burnished parquet. The men and ladies of the court are dressed in lush gowns or suits of brocade.

David McCullum is good as a rather avuncular, comic Kaiser. Cindy Katz does well making Mozart's chirpy wife, Constanze, a loyal, sometimes impatient helpmeet.

Peter Hall's staging has the clarity and grace of a tone poem.

"Waiting in the Wings"
by Noel Coward as revisited by Jeremy Sams, directed by Michael Langham
Produced by Alexander H. Cohen, Chase Mishkin, Max Cooper, Leonard Soloway, Steven M. Levy
The Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 West 48 Street
Opened December 16, 1999
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar December 23, 1999
"Waiting in the Wings" is one of Noel Coward's later plays, written in 1960. His best work was done in the 20's and 30's. By the sixties, though social politics around him was bubbling, he was no longer the mordant skewer of conventional morality and social structures, but had become rather conservative, lashing out at innovators such as Harold Pinter and John Osborne.

This play is ostensibly about a serious subject: being old, finished with work and waiting for death. But it turns out to be a tame, sentimental affair, with pointed quips traded for one liners that even Neil Simon might find toothless. Still, as staged by Michael Langham and performed by a troop of wonderfully talented actors, it's a lot of fun.

We're in a suburban London high-ceilinged sitting room with flowered slip-covered furniture of the kind you'd see in any B&B. This is "The Wings," a retirement home for actresses. The pending arrival of a new resident, Lotta Bainbridge (Lauren Bacall) sets everyone in a tizzy, because she's had a 30-year feud with one of the ladies, May Davenport (Rosemary Harris). It's not the focus of the play -- nothing seems to be-- but it gives Lotta to chance to insist, with a rare example of that old Coward wit, "I'm positively bristling with olive branches."

The women are also occupied by efforts to get their paternalistic board to build a solarium and by a visit from a pushy newspaper gossip columnist (Christa Moore). In the course of things, an old lady dies, another receives her weekly male visitor, and a third sets a fire. All of them seem to have given up on life and are spinning their wheels, waiting out their time. Perhaps Coward, then 61, was feeling his years, but in this production it strikes one as odd since most of the women don't even seem old enough to be in a retirement home.

The plot is thin, contrived and unconnected, including the feud (over a man) and the arrival of a son Lotta hasn't seen for 30 years. But even as one tallies the faults, one must acknowledge that the show is enjoyable, with an old-fashioned corny charm. The real fun comes from the delicious characters created by a cast of experienced stage actresses who make you wish there were more parts for women of their age.

The biggest delight is Rosemary Harris as May Davenport, a lady of regal bearing and charm. You don't doubt for a moment that May was a theatrical grande dame.

Unfortunately, the play's biggest draw, Lauren Bacall, is its biggest drawback. She is one- dimensional, flat in voice and expression. The production raises interesting questions about the different qualities needed on stage and screen. Bacall, for one, could use voice lessons. Her speaking voice has no timber, which was clearly not required on a heavily miked film set. On stage, she lacks the musicality and depth that gives roundness to the tones of the others.

And her face is like a mask, with hardly a twitch of expression, while her colleagues on stage act with every muscle and lifted eyebrow. Movies with close-ups may require more subtlety, but the theater calls for clear expressions of feelings. About the only feeling she portrays is her famous dry cynicism.

The others in the cast all get their moments to shine. Cora (Rosemary Murphy) utters Coward's cynical one-liners with great panache. When someone comments that "When people get old, they can remember what happened the turn of the last century and not what happened last week," she replies, "Nothing did."

Deirdre O'Malley (Helena Carroll) is comic as Coward's satire of the dark Irish, a dour woman who can unearth the depressing side of anything. Dana Ivey is a funny butch caricature of a good-hearted sergeant turned into house superintendent. Elizabeth Wilson brings great charm to Bonita, a woman of eminent good sense and spirit. Bette Henritze is funny as Almina, who is always crying about something. Helen Stenborg is appealing as the nutty, sweet Sarita who goes around quoting from "Macbeth." And Patricia Conolly is a delight as Maudie, the giggly soprano who can't stop reprising her youthful music hall days.

The best parts occur when director Michael Langham forgets about the plot and has the talented cast comically cavort and sing music hall style at a New Year's Eve celebration. When Simon Jones, amiable as Perry Lascoe, the mellow, laid-back assistant to the superintendent ("Hello, tout le monde!"), sings a rousing "The Spaniard who Blighted my Life," you wish you were at the party.

"Wrong Mountain"
by David Hirson, directed by Richard Jones
Produced by Dodger Theatricals with American Conservatory Theater, Lauren Mitchell, and John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
The Eugene O'Neill Theatre, 230 West 49 Street
Opened January 13, 2000 (closed)
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar January 14, 2000
"Wrong Mountain" does for words and theater what "Art" did for painting. It satirizes the literary world and uses it as a metaphor to asks questions about people's values. It makes spectators ponder their own lives and wonder if they too might be climbing the wrong mountain.

David Hirson has written a broad comedy with intellectual themes. It is at once a clever indictment of smug academic writers and a game played with the audience. After all, who else is the object of the protagonist's attack on authors writing "the kind of sanctimonious kitsch that's embraced as high art by an audience of suburban morons dimwitted enough to believe that by going to a play they're having some sort of cultural experience. "

Hirson's inspiration came from the paralyzing effect of watching his own play, "La Bete," get good reviews but fail on Broadway in 1991.

The source of the on-stage vituperation, which gets worse, is Henry Dennett (Ron Rifkin) a self-declared great poet in his 50's who is ignored by the world while his ex-wife's boyfriend, Guy Halperin (Michael Winter), a self-admitted hack playwright, is lionized and rich. The ostensibly good-natured Guy turns the shiv in his wound: "You should be the celebrated one, not I. Have the prizes and swollen bank account."

Henry is angry, bitter, spiteful, even obscene, to everyone. When a young bookstore clerk gushes that she heard him read at Bennington, he screams abuse at her. He is supercilious to a young writer. He is unaccountably mean to his admiring son. What is wrong with this man?

It turns out that the rants and tirades are provoked by contemptiosuarumcupitiditatumfilaria, Latin for a 40-foot worm inside his gut. It's also Latin for contempt for one's own innate ambition. It's gnawing at him, eating him alive. Literally. And he'll never get rid of it. The worm provokes painful spasms when Henry imbibes corn, the fodder on which the public (cattle) is fed.

However, the glimpse we're given of Henry's poetry is not too impressive; it's replete with pretentious infantile constructions.

Henry and Guy have met at Christmas dinner, at which, for a trivia quiz, Guy asks, "What is the longest running Broadway musical? The largest grossing Broadway musical?" That just sets Henry off again in a rage about macabre peepshows for third rate minds.

In the course of a nasty fight, Guy bets $100,000 that Henry can't write a successful play. That wager takes the poet on a journey of self-discovery, helped by a very funny, touching artistic director (Daniel Davis) and the actors and playwrights at a small New England town's theater festival.

The events alternate with monologues and dialogues in which Henry tries to figure out the meaning of honesty in art. He insists that it is dishonest to tailor his work to the audiences for plays who are "hopelessly middle class." To create a play of "feel-good politics in a collective society: 'I feel your pain. Now, where are we going to eat?'" And, "You don't think people go to the theater to have their values challenged? They go to bask in the flattering image of themselves as people who are open enough to have their values challenged, which is just another way of saying that they go to the theater to have their values confirmed."

A poet, he says, doesn't have to pander to the cornball values of middle class audiences. Really? Then why does Henry brag to a young playwright at the festival that he knows John Asbury? And repeat that fact several times when his listener doesn't seem impressed?

The young man (Daniel Jenkins), in fact, accuses him of being suspiciously middle class or controlled by a middle class idea of success. It's become clear by this time that Henry isn't satisfied with his own poetic succes d'estime. What's eating at him is not outrage at corn, but jealousy and resentment. He is confronted by the possibility that he might have devoted himself to the wrong goals, gotten trapped in that maze of trails on the white peaks labeled "wrong mountain."

Henry also can't make contact with other people, with the actors putting on his play, even with his children, especially his son, who defends his father's ideas, but is reviled for being a tax attorney. This intellectual paragon, by the way, is not above coming on to young women. He is brilliantly mocked by the young actress Ariel (Anne Dudek), who caustically ripostes, "For weeks I've been pining to kiss your old man lips."

He gets an even more derisive put-down from Maurice the theater director, who can't seem to remember his name. ("Heinrich Himmler?) Maurice is a wonderful character who, in a deadly satiric line, introduces a work in the theater festival with the all-purpose cliche as a "play of who we are as a nation and where we're destined to go."

There are many such clever quips and inside jokes. When Henry screams in agony at the worm's chewing on his insides, his doctor (Tom Riis Farrell) inquires, "Are you experiencing any discomfort right now?" The players at the festival do "getting in touch with their feelings" exercises. One tells Henry, "Thank you for your anger."

There are flaws. Some of the dialogue is repetitive. Guy Halpern's lines about plays expressing love and democracy seem a bit unreal and don't work.

But the acting is all excellent, beginning with Ron Rifkin as the bitter, egotistical poet. Daniel Dais is superb as the funny, hammy, exuberant, slightly fey actor who's made peace with his life as a small town theater director. Ilana Levine is very good as Henry's soul-pinched daughter. And Richard Jones' direction keeps just the right balance between comic satire and bizarre fantasy.

The set by Giles Cadle is clever and cartoonish -- a giant white ski mountain sketch, a bookstore represented by a descending shelf with the lit-up sign, "Nematodes," a toy train chugging past the mountain. The studio at the Lila B. Hirschon Rehearsal Pavilion is decorated with photos of Maurice coming out of a garbage can (Beckett), with a king's crown (Shakespeare), and splattered with mud (?) A huge ceramic statue of a goddess, her head ringed with a corn wreath, prompted my art expert companion to remark, "A Jeff Coons!"

The music alternates between "The Nutcracker" and cornball. Or maybe it doesn't alternate. [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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