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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the July 2, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Off-Broadway: `Talking Heads’

Whatever inexplicably capricious gesture it was that

led the Outer Critics Circle to bestow the 2003 award for "Outstanding

Ensemble" to "Talking Heads," it will likely remain a

mystery. This production of six (sometimes seven) monologues, presented

in two programs of three (sometimes four) each, is worthy of many

accolades, but ensemble is not one of them. There is nothing remotely

"ensemble" about six (sometimes seven) actors performing solo.

With that said, these absolutely riveting "solo pieces" by

British playwright Alan Bennett are being performed by actors each

of whom are so splendid in her and (in one case) his own right, that

this reviewer is tempted to insist you not miss either Program A or

Program B. The roster of actors includes Kathleen Chalfant, Daniel

Davis, Christine Ebersole, Valerie Mahaffey, Lynn Redgrave, and Brenda

Wehle. But wait.

I had the pleasure of returning for a second time to see a seventh

"piece" that has recently been added featuring Frances Sternhagen.

This is to be used not only as a fourth in either program but also

as a floating replacement when actors from the other "pieces"

are missing.

While "Talking Heads" was originally conceived by Bennett

to be performed on British television (and later shown over here on

PBS), the "pieces" are entirely suitable to the larger stage

and are certainly dazzling enough in language and stirring enough

in dramatic content to keep the attention of the most antsy theatergoer.

If there is a common thread running through the "pieces,"

it is the time in the life of the character when her/his life takes

an unexpected detour from the ritual of the common place.

With gracious diversity from the wistfully poignant to the hilariously

skewed, these first-person narratives accomplish what many multi-character

plays do not. They succeed in transporting us from our own world into

the minds of some thoroughly disarming characters. Under Michael Engler’s

sensitive direction and within the suitably minimal set design by

Rachel Hauck, the "pieces" reveal human nature with honesty

and humor.

Program A: There’s a twisty touch of O’Henry in "The Hand of God,"

as Celia (Brenda Wehle), an antiques dealer, discourses on the shrewd

way she runs her modest little business, just a little smug about

the way she can recognize objects d’art as well as size-up the buyers

and tell the difference between the lookers, the dealers, and the

bargainers. That is until the day a man walks into her shop and —

but that would give away the show. Wehle, a member of the Guthrie

Theater for 10 years, and seen in New York in "Spinning into Butter"

at Lincoln Center, gives a low-key but highly impassioned performance.

What better choice to play Irene, a pathetic chattering

busybody, than Christine Ebersole. In "A Lady of Letters,"

"Miss Ruddock," if you please, has a penchant for spying on

her neighbors, and writing countless letters of complaints to various

officials and organizations that fail to meet or comply with her extremely

repressive Victorian standards. Her seriously misguided ethics lead

to her being reprimanded and institutionalized, ironically, with happy

results. What can I say about Ebersole, except that she reminds me

of a light and airy soap bubble. And when it bursts in your eye, it

stings a little.

Many of us remember Maggie Smith’s performance in "Bed Among the

Lentils" on TV, but this does not detract in any way from Kathleen

Chalfant’s winning performance as Susan, the alcoholic wife of a vicar

who finds release from her daily duties in the arms of an Indian merchant.

Despite the lack of surprise, it affords Chalfant a tantalizing showcase

in which to insinuate a despondent woman’s sublimated sensuality.

The award-winning star of "Wit" continues to amaze and delight.

Program B: "Her Big Chance" with Valerie Mahaffey as Leslie,

an aspiring, C-list actor who will do anything and justify anything

to get a break, is a hoot. It’s more her stubborn resolve than her

occasional reality checks that makes Leslie attempt to beef up her

bit part in a European-made quickie with motivation. Bennett’s script

is often hilarious, but it is Mahaffey who brings such well-crafted

naivete to bear that allows us to believe this plucky starlet may

actually have what it takes to succeed.

In "A Chip in the Sugar," Daniel Davis, an actor who carries

around his classically-informed speech as winningly as any Britisher,

is Graham, a middle-aged man still living at home and taking care

of his widowed mother. Davis was nominated for a Tony for his memorable

performance as the effete theatrical director in "Wrong Mountain,"

and more recently seen and admired as Oscar Wilde in the Lincoln Center

production of "The Invention of Love." Here he is quite touching

as he tries to counter his mother’s recently renewed relationship

with a former beau. He tries to understand the romance that threatens

to leave him out of the picture.

"Miss Fozzard Finds Her Feet" finds the incomparable Lynn

Redgrave playing the title role of a guileless spinster who, while

burdened with the care of her brother, a stroke victim, finds the

meaning of life in the hands of a sly, but hardly menacing, chiropodist.

Notwithstanding sister Vanessa’s Tony win for her Broadway performance

in "Long Days Journey Into Night," Lynn’s performance is equally

bravura. It is easy to take delight in watching Redgrave go down a

slightly indiscreet, but blissful, path with a pair of happy feet.

The extra play that you may have the added pleasure of seeing is "Waiting

for the Telegram," in which the lovely Frances Sternhagen plays

a 95-year-old woman who recalls the loves of her long ago past and

those of her more recent present with the fleeting visions experienced

by those who suffer from the beginnings of dementia and Alzheimer’s.

As with all of the Bennett’s "pieces," it is neither sentimental

nor self-consciously gimmicky. It is like the rest of the "pieces:"

splendid theater. Four stars. Don’t miss.

— Simon Saltzman

Talking Heads, Minetta Lane Theatre, 18 Minetta Lane,

Greenwich Village, 212-420-8000. Tickets $35-$65; $100 for both.

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