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This review by Simon Saltzman was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on

July 19, 2000. All rights reserved.

Off-Broadway: `The Countess’

E-mail: SimonSaltzman@princetoninfo.co

Unheralded and unceremoniously presented when it first

opened, "The Countess" by Gregory Murphy, whose first play

this is, has not only become the most talked about drama in New York,

but also the longest running. Critics have followed its one-year

journey

from Off-Off Broadway to Off-Broadway (now in its third theater) with

steadily increasing accolades. Certainly the public has taken a fancy

to the Victorian setting and the intimate and suspenseful story about

John Ruskin, the high-minded British critic of art and society and

champion of the artists who formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood,

his wife Effie (the countess of the title), and John Everett Millais,

Ruskin’s painter protege and exponent of the then-controversial

Pre-Raphaelite

school.

Nothing, however, could have been more controversial and scandalous

than the affair that shocked London society in 1853, but began in

a small cottage in the Scottish Highlands. It is there that Ruskin

(James Riordan) has taken his wife (Jennifer Woodward) and Millais

(Jy Murphy) for a four-month holiday. Millais, who is grateful to

Ruskin for his defense of his artistic convictions, has agreed to

stay with them and paint Ruskin’s portrait. Revealed as a neurotic,

sexually dysfunctional, verbally abusive husband ("I don’t like

the way you look, sound, or move"), the tyrant Ruskin has

devilishly

conspired to arrange for his young, love-starved bride to be

compromised

by the romantic, younger (by 10 years) painter Millais.

Inevitably, Millais and Effie fall in love. But they also become pawns

in Ruskin’s plot to drive Effie mad (think "Gaslight") and

ill. It seems that Ruskin, was attracted to his cousin Effie when

she was 12 years old, but was so revolted by her looks ("You are

not what I think a woman should be") as a woman that he refused

to have any sexual relations with her. Riordan gives a chilling

account

of the diabolical Ruskin who became, ironically, the author of a

famous

tract on Victorian womanhood and this famous dictum that begins,

"Go

to Nature in singleness of heart and walk with her laboriously and

trustingly, adding nothing, rejecting nothing, scorning nothing."

Murphy’s carefully crafted drama about lovers caught in a diabolical

trap set by the esteemed Ruskin is especially sensitive and observant

about proper Victorian etiquette and behavior, particularly in

marriage.

This is given particular emphasis in the performances of Richard Seff

and Anita Keal, as Ruskin’s stuffy and snobby parents, and Tracy

Sallows,

as Lady Eastlake, Effie’s ally and confidante.

Articulate and passionate, the play is beautifully served by Ludovica

Villar-Hauser’s direction, which allows us to see how the conventions

of Victorian society and the constraints put upon sexual longing

affected

this very strange, true-life affair. Woodward gives an extraordinarily

compelling performance as the attractive and frustrated wife who

blossoms

from a repressed woman, hated and reviled, into a defiant and valiant

one, both loved and desired.

Equally fine is Murphy’s transformation from a respectful pupil into

a resourceful lover and future husband. However, beautifully dressed

up by designers Mark Symczak (settings) and Christopher Lione and

Elizabeth Muxi (costumes), it is the Freudian tremors that we see

below the surface of this Victorian melodrama that makes "The

Countess" an evening of terrific theater. HHH

— Simon Saltzman

The Countess, Lamb’s Theater, 130 West 44 Street, New

York, 212-997-1780. $40 & $55.

Unless otherwise noted, all Broadway and Off-Broadway

reservations

can be made through Tele-Charge at 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200.

Other ticket outlets: Ticket Central, 212-279-4200; Ticketmaster,

800-755-4000 or 212-307-4100.

For current information on Broadway and Off-Broadway shows, music,

and dance call NYC/On Stage at 212-768-1818, a 24-hour performing

arts hotline operated by the Theater Development Fund.

The TKTS same-day, half-price ticket booth at Times Square (Broadway

& 47th) is open daily, 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. for evening performances;

10 a.m. to 2 p.m. for Wednesday and Saturday matinees; and 11 a.m.

to closing for Sunday matinees. The lower Manhattan booth, on the

Mezzanine at 2 World Trade Center, is open Monday through Friday,

11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday from 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.


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