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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
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
Award-winner Dame Judi Dench who adds the luster to Hare’s wildly
anticipated, but hugely disappointing, "Amy’s View." The
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
(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
a long-forgotten and never-before-produced play by our own Tennessee
One British import that should have been thrown immediately into the
lost and forgotten pile before making the trip over — it has
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
to stage "The Civil War."
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
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
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
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
and breakups over several years. What keep the characters so
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
will linger in your thoughts long after the curtain falls.
$20 to $60.
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
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
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
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
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
$35 & $55. To June 14.
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
as it is by Richard Eyre, is most generously fueled by Dench’s
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
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
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
condescending views on art and theater, but to betray Amy’s trust
(I won’t divulge how), it creates an irreparable breach in their
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
marriage that includes children. It takes a fourth wheel, Frank
Pickup), as a neighboring investment broker and widower, who has
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
alters Esme’s lifestyle (as it did scores of unwittingly seduced
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
caught between a mother she adores and the man she has chosen.
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.
— Simon Saltzman
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