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This column by Simon Saltzman was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on June 9, 1999.

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London on Broadway

Don’t feel badly because you missed out on that London

theater trip. For better and worse, this season Shubert Alley looks

suspiciously like Shaftesbury Avenue.

But are we supposed to be pleased or perplexed that the U.K. has

exported

more mediocre productions to the U.S. than we would ever dream of

sending to them? It wasn’t enough for the Brits to show off lovely

Nicole Kidman’s bum in David Hare’s otherwise bum play, "The Blue

Room." We had to indulge the playwright himself in the flesh (not

quite as boldly as Kidman), to share his views on Israel and Palestine

in his one-man dramatic lecture, "Via Dolorosa."

You could say that the omnipresent Hare has a way of enticing stars

into his orbit. Last year it was Liam Neeson in the perverse and drab

drama on Oscar Wilde, "The Judas Kiss." This year it is

Academy

Award-winner Dame Judi Dench who adds the luster to Hare’s wildly

anticipated, but hugely disappointing, "Amy’s View." The

Chinese

are right on target calling this the year of the Hare.

Of the two major Award-winners from London, Conor McPherson’s ghostly

"The Weir" gave more of us the fidgets than the willies, while

the less-touted Patrick Marber’s hot and hard-hitting "Closer"

scored a bullseye. Martin McDonagh, the young upstart from Ireland,

is hoping for his second hit in two seasons with "The Lonesome

West," the stunning, funny, and violent third part of a trilogy

that began with "The Beauty Queen of Leenane." Part two has

not yet crossed the Atlantic.

Although the London-originating production of the Greek tragedy

"Electra"

(which had its pre-Broadway engagement at the McCarter Theater), was

a bigger hit than anyone could have imagined, its reception was not

nearly as startling as was the London-originated production of the

American classic, "The Iceman Cometh." However the Brits did

have the temerity (God bless them) to rediscover "Not About

Nightingales,"

a long-forgotten and never-before-produced play by our own Tennessee

Williams.

One British import that should have been thrown immediately into the

lost and forgotten pile before making the trip over — it has

already

closed — was "Marlene," a heartless and vapid homage to

Dietrich, eerily impersonated by Sian Phillips. Broadway had its sweet

revenge, however, by producing British playwright Emlyn William’s

classic tingler "Night Must Fall" with great style. Gone are

the days when we could count on a mega-ton musical from London to

save a particularly paltry musical season. At least we had the

temerity

to stage "The Civil War."

`Closer’

Closer," which comes to Broadway after deservedly

winning the London Evening Standard and the Critics’ Circle awards,

is sexier and more provocative than any other new play this season

— British or otherwise — on Broadway. Under the playwright’s

own flawless direction, the play deals wittily yet uncompromisingly

with the inability of four mature, passionate people to find either

permanence or closeness in their intricately interlocked

relationships.

This is a comedy of manners that matters, as it skillfully dissects

a circle of betraying and betrayed lovers.

It is easy to understand why Alice (Anna Friel), a beguiling men’s

club stripper, falls for and becomes the lover of Dan (Rupert Graves),

an insecure writer who used Alice as the subject of his modestly

received

first book. If Dan’s talent ultimately proves more lucrative as the

writer of a newspaper’s obit page, it initially serves to attract

Anna (Natasha Richardson), the cool yet emotionally vulnerable

photographer

assigned to photograph Alice for the book’s cover.

In the mood for perverse diversion, Dan pretends he is Anna as he

initiates a hilarious, XXX-rated dialogue on an Internet chat-room

with Larry (Ciaran Hinds), a dermatologist with an acute attraction

to skin. This scene alone is worth the price of admission. Through

a clever spin of the plot, Larry actually gets to meet and fall in

love with Anna. Yes, other combinations occur and recur over

heartbreaks

and breakups over several years. What keep the characters so

intriguing

and poignant are their pitiful searches for the kind of fulfilling

relationships that are obviously and sadly beyond their capacity to

experience. Downward spiraling affairs may not seem like a fun way

to spend an evening, but Marber’s dialogue is trendy, trenchant, and

brutally revealing. Flawed as they are, the expertly portrayed

characters

will linger in your thoughts long after the curtain falls.

HHH

Closer, Music Box Theater, 239 West 45 Street,

800-432-7250.

$20 to $60.

`Via Dolorosa’

David Hare is better known as a playwright than as an

actor. Yet in "Via Dolorosa," Hare proves that he is almost

as much at home reciting his own text as he is writing it. Hare’s

visits two years ago to Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip

prompted him to set down on paper his memories and reactions to a

wide mix of tempestuous people in this most turbulent of places. Why

not try to put a personable and sensible spin on the baffling

conflicts

between Arabs and Jews? With the activist help of director Stephen

Daldry, Hare’s relative objectivity of the regional clashes, and his

subjective questioning "Are we where we live, or are we what we

think?" become the meat of the play.

Although I cringed a little at designer Ian MacNeil’s overly

conceptualized

setting of ramps and walkways (including a brief background appearance

of a miniaturized view of Palestine all aglow), it was easy enough

to give my attention to Hare’s slyly investigative reportage. His

90-minute text is based on a series of interviews and meetings with

a wide variety of people of an admittedly different way of life than

his own.

By using a good storyteller’s gift for the occasional digression and

diversion, the commendably personable and relaxed Hare tries valiantly

to make sense of the causes. This, as he relates what he perceives

as the prevailing effects of clashing politics and religions upon

this land, this eternal battleground of alien cultures. But dramatic

interest and inquiry is conditioned and tested by the polite, only

occasionally provocative meetings Hare has with some only moderately

interesting activist Arabs, a few amusingly confrontational Jews,

and a couple of typically intense theater people. An unintentionally

humorous meeting with politicos, and a visit with family of stolid

West Bank settlers are the most eye-opening.

As an investigative historian, Hare reports on the people who make

it clear enough to him how the compromises of Rabin and the policies

of Netanyahu may be going nowhere. But he sees this as nothing

compared

to the rigid ideas and inflexible ideologies that continue to separate

secular and religious Jews. Hare also gives voice to the Palestinians,

who offer their dismay with Arafat’s government. Yes, we have to agree

with Hare that life here must be exceedingly difficult. As a travel

guide, Hare takes us from the air-conditioned splendor of Tel Aviv

to the disillusioning squalor of the Gaza Strip. And it is all so

vivid — without slides. The impact of this cross-cultural trip

of just a few miles he compares to "driving from California to

Bangladesh." "Via Dolorosa" may be a first-class dramatic

lecture, but it’s a tourist-class play. HH

Via Dolorosa, Booth Theater, 222 East 45, 800-432-7250.

$35 & $55. To June 14.

`Amy’s View’

The Dame who played a Queen (and won the Academy Award

for it), now reigns over Broadway. The incomparable Dame Judi Dench

is recreating her London Award-winning performance in David Hare’s

"Amy’s View." There is nothing, even in her most recent and

exceptional screen portrayals ("Mrs. Brown," "Shakespeare

in Love," to say nothing of the BBC-TV comedy series "As Time

Goes By"), that this actor does on the screen to compare with

the visceral life she brings with her on the stage.

Even "Amy’s View," as filled as it is with Hare’s penchant

for politicizing every event and character, and as beautifully

directed

as it is by Richard Eyre, is most generously fueled by Dench’s

dazzling

performance, as Esme. Dench’s Esme is an invigoratingly tempestuous

self-absorbed London stage actor in conflict with the direction of

her waning career, and the bad (in her view) romantic choice made

by her daughter Amy (Samantha Bond).

The play, which progresses chronologically over 26 years, begins in

1979 at Esme’s London suburb home. Here Amy is preparing her lover

Dominic (Tate Donovan), an eager young film journalist and aspiring

media-critic, for Esme’s return after the theater. Also in the home

is Evelyn (Anne Pitoniak), Esme’s aging mother-in-law who keeps

warmed-over

pub dinners in a stage of eternal readiness.

With Esme’s star-quality arrival also comes her instant disapproval

of Dominic and of Amy’s commitment to him. Amy’s view, as it is

referred

to more than once, is one of eternal optimism and the belief that

love conquers all. However, when the outspoken, aggressively defensive

Esme feels it is right for her to not only challenge the baiting

Dominic’s

condescending views on art and theater, but to betray Amy’s trust

(I won’t divulge how), it creates an irreparable breach in their

heretofore

loving and close relationship.

The years that follow trace the fall and somewhat amusing resurrection

of Esme’s career, as it also follows the painful course of Amy’s

deteriorating

marriage that includes children. It takes a fourth wheel, Frank

(Ronald

Pickup), as a neighboring investment broker and widower, who has

become

Esme’s occasional lover, to get this vehicle hurtling into another

nightmare, a financial one.

This involves Frank’s well-meaning, if ill-advised counsel to place

all of Esme’s money into the infamous and disastrous Lloyd of London

"Names" program, a bankrupt-creating situation that

significantly

alters Esme’s lifestyle (as it did scores of unwittingly seduced

investors).

If Hare doesn’t spare us characters with a bent for long-winded, often

too slickly postured, diatribes, Dench makes her prideful retaliations

exquisitely passionate. Bond makes us feel the heartbreak of a

daughter

caught between a mother she adores and the man she has chosen.

Pitoniak

deteriorates gracefully into senility as convincingly as Frank gently

falls from grace. The play’s two final scenes, including a nice bit

by Maduka Steady, as a young actor, and a brief, but spectacular,

moment of almost transcendent healing and redemption, make much of

the talk that preceded it seem almost worthwhile.

HHH

Amy’s View, Barrymore, 243 West 47, 800-432-7250. To July

18.

— Simon Saltzman


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