Corrections or additions?

This review by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the

May 2, 2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Review: `Claudia Lazlo’

Almost the official playwright-in-residence at the

George Street Playhouse, Arthur Laurents is fortunate indeed to have

established a productive working relationship with artistic director

David Saint. Saint directed both Laurents’ "Jolson Sings

Again,"

and the musical "Do I Hear A Waltz" that boasted a libretto

by Laurents. Although Laurents served as director and adapter of the

slight and inconsequential "Venecia," produced earlier this

season with Chita Rivera, he returns more formidably as a playwright

with "Claudia Lazlo," directed, of course, by Saint. Their

artistic bond is palpable, more so than the half-amusing, half-tedious

dramatic assault of a play that owes a large debt to Pirandello.

Just as in the master Italian playwright’s "Six Characters in

Search of an Author," the characters/actors in a regional theater

company lead independent lives. But during a rehearsal of a

provocative

and disturbing play they are drawn into finding more truths about

themselves in the characters they are playing than they are willing

to recognize as their own reality. The theme is profound enough: that

no matter how complex and baffling are the characters in a fiction,

the glib and affectedly pasted together personalities we see on stage

can not compete with the deeper and truer psychological complexities

and underpinnings of our own lives, no matter how incomplete and

imperfect.

The play’s conceit is, of necessity, tantalizing. In "Claudia

Lazlo," the actors attempt to understand and reveal what is true

about their characters through improvisation. The technique is simple

enough, but in this instance it triggers and releases deep-seated

emotions, fears and biases that complicates the creative process set

in motion, as well as destroying the actors’ working relationships.

The play is shrewdly structured so that the actors are indeed

uncomfortably

close in personality and persuasions to the characters they are

playing.

Under David Saint’s carefully designed direction, the cast moves

amusingly

and deftly from who they are to whom they are playing.

It doesn’t take long for one reality to seep into another. It isn’t

a task for us to keep up. A fine cast rises to the occasion a little

better than the play, which, when all is said and done, doesn’t have

much at stake for the actors, those they are playing, or the audience,

although there is much to be said about the questions Laurents is

asking. One of which he describes in the playbill notes: "Are

you allowed unprincipled behavior, or behavior the rest of us are

not allowed, because you are an artist?"

Laurents says the life and career of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf; the famous

opera singer, an artist as well as a Nazi, inspired him. As a Nazi

she wasn’t allowed to sing after the war because she was in the allied

zone. It was only after she married an English impresario, a Jew,

that she was allowed to sing and come to America.

While I harbor a special affection for Laurent’s screenplay for

"The

Way We Were," and for his skill as a librettist ("West Side

Story," "Gypsy") and playwright ("The Time of the

Cuckoo" "A Clearing in the Woods"), "Claudia

Lazlo"

seems little more than a fanciful dalliance. Amusing and challenging

in fits and starts, it is ultimately too bemused. Laurents has set

his new play-with-a-play after World War II. It focuses on the dilemma

of Madeline Gray (Cigdem Onat), a diva of the dramatic stage who has

been cast to play the role of Claudia Lazlo (also played by Onat),

an opera diva with a Nazi past. When she begins to sense that her

own life is suddenly entwined with that of her character, the

rehearsals

and her feelings become the object of much confusion and unrest among

the company.

Cigdem Onat, a native of Turkey and a former member of the National

Theatre in Ankara, was most recently seen in the Lincoln Center

Theater

revival of "The Time of the Cuckoo." In the title role(s),

Onat, at once a graceful, attractive and dominating presence, plays

both divas divinely. There are interesting and critical comparisons

made between Claudia, her unapologetic defense of her past, and with

the difficult, temperamental, and arguably anti-Semitic Madeline,

who is also challenged not only by her past actions but by her current

ones, particularly a tendency to control the rehearsals, as well as

the young good-looking director.

Jonathan Walker is excellent as Lucas, the director who is not above

patronizing his diva while having an open affair with Caitlin

Schwartzman

(played impudently by Dana Brooke), the play’s feisty Jewish ingenue,

who has a hard time dealing with her role as Kim, a foxy little

lesbian

feigning the hots for Lazlo.

Reed Birney, last seen at George Street in "The Council of

Thirty,"

plays Freddie, the play’s artfully coy stage manager, understudy,

and Madeline’s ex-lover, as well as a belligerent and blustery Capt.

DiNicola who openly despises Lazlo. The Obie Award-winning Jonathan

Hadary has built a fine reputation on and Off-Broadway and appeared

auspiciously at George Street in "Jolson Sings Again." He

milks every bit of humor and hubris out of his roles as Jonathan

Hillegas,

a wary and unforgiving actor prone to self-serving outbursts and as

the calculating Lt. Martin Feingold of the U.S. Army cum acting

impresario

of the Salzburg Opera.

Set designer Ricardo Hernandez provides just enough modest furnishings

to suggest the stage of a regional theater. Mercifully, Laurents

provides

considerably more than what the actor Jonathan asks after everyone

has vented and sufficiently served the great god Thespis: "Jesus,

are we done with this crap?" Not as long as there are playwrights.

— Simon Saltzman

Claudio Lazlo, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston

Avenue,

New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. $24 to $40. Performances through May

20.


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