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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the May 22, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Revivals To the Rescue

Just as Hollywood produces sequels for security, Broadway

relies on revivals of past hits to lure a new generation to the theater.

With a scarcity of new plays caused by a shortage of risk-taking producers,

revivals are key players on Broadway and mainly responsible for keeping

the theaters open and the Tony voters hopping in recent weeks.

Revivals are also considered relatively well-known commodities, easy

to market, and less financially risky. Opera and ballet companies

and symphony orchestras are constantly wooing a new generation with

the classics of the repertoire.

Yet the theater, more than the others, has found that looking at classics

in a new light (including two from Arthur Miller) often helps to keep

up with changing tastes and attitudes. While some purists resent tampering

(whether reckless or tame) with a cherished original, there is no

denying that most classics have earned the right to be reinterpreted

and restaged to resonate for present-day audiences.

Into the Woods

Given Stephen Sondheim’s complex and ravishing score,

the revival of "Into the Woods" (first produced in 1987),

appears only slightly altered in its staging and design. James Lapine’s

intellectually challenging book (he also directs), about discontented

fairy-tale characters, has always been closer to "Let’s-be-pretentious"

than "Let’s Pretend."

Children under 12 may be confused by what happens to the storybook

characters they know from the Brothers Grimm. Following them on their

circuitous and disastrous misadventures is more of a psychoanalytical

journey. Adults will better understand the show’s theme: that when

you actually get what you wished for, suffering often follows.

Except for a charming scene-stealing dancing cow (new to this production)

and the beautiful Vanessa Williams as an atypical witch (she also

sings winningly the musical’s only new song "Our Little World"),

the cast scampers through the woods (dense with foliage by Douglas

W. Schmidt) with esprit to spare. But no one seems able to cast any

new or unforgettable spells on this haunting but problematic musical.

Two stars. Maybe you should have stayed home.

Into The Woods, Broadhurst Theater, 235 West 44th Street,

New York.

The Man Who Had All The Luck

In 1944 Arthur Miller didn’t have any luck with "The

Man Who Had All The Luck," his first Broadway play. It lasted

for four performances. But aren’t we glad he didn’t get discouraged?

Anyone interested in the history of modern theater and curious about

this early, yet assured and surprisingly mature early effort by one

of America’s greatest dramatic writers will want to see this revival

presented by the Roundabout Theater, under the direction of Scott

Ellis. While young fans will enjoy seeing film stars Chris O’Donnell

and Samantha Mathis (both excellent without setting the barn on fire),

the rest of us will attend to the philosophical and social issues

being raised by a young Miller (he was 29). A young Midwestern mechanic

(O’Donnell) finds it difficult living a life that affords him nothing

but lucky breaks. Look for signs of the yet to come "Death of

a Salesman." Three stars. You won’t feel cheated.

The Man Who Had All The Luck, American Airlines Theater,

227 West 42nd Street, New York, 212-719-1300. Through June 30.

Private Lives

Noel Coward’s "Private Lives," dates back to

1930 (1931 on Broadway) with the playwright himself and Gertrude Lawrence

in the lead roles as Elyot and Amanda, the synthetic two-dimensional

twits. In recent years, we have seen Elizabeth Taylor and Richard

Burton (1983) in the roles, and in 1992 Joan Collins and Simon Jones.

Now Lindsay Duncan and Alan Rickman, who previously lusted after each

other in 1987 in "Les Liaisons Dangereuses," are starring

in the acclaimed London production (with gorgeous Gaudi inspired settings

by Tim Hately) of this perfect little jewel of a comedy. They careen

through Coward’s veritable avalanche of witty dialogue, naughty twists,

and wacky turns with a darker edge than we have seen before. And they

also plunge into the no-hold barred brawling and ensuing bedlam with

more than the required gusto.

But the plot remains no more than a few coincidences supported by

a few incidents. Coward’s bon mot sprinkled comedy provides

a safe haven for almost any actor worth his salt. As for the plot:

two honeymooning couples find they have connecting terraces at a posh

hotel on the coast of France, and the husband of one couple has been

previously married to the wife of the other. So much for that. Adam

Godley is humorously irate, as Victor, Emma Fielding is text-book

Coward as the quibbling Sibyl, and Alex Belcourt, is a hoot as the

condescending French maid. Howard Davies directs with a flair for

the ferocious. Two stars. Maybe you should have stayed home.

Private Lives, Richard Rodgers Theater, 226 West 46th,

New York, 212-307-4100.

Morning’s at Seven

John Osborn’s "Morning’s at Seven" lasted only

44 performances when it first appeared on Broadway in 1939. What did

they know? Its virtues, however, were successfully revitalized in

a 1980 revival. Now, the gentle, bittersweet play appears to be glowing

even more brightly with a superb cast performing in a lovely (another

breathtaking setting designed by John Lee Beatty) and lovingly directed

(by Daniel Sullivan) production. While it is difficult to describe

the fragile charms and eccentricities of these neighboring family

members who interact in the backyard of their abutting homes, the

echo of another time (this is pre-World War II, small town America)

is heard.

In the play, four late middle-aged sisters, played by an out-spoken

Elizabeth Franz, a wistful Frances Sternhagen, a wise Piper Laurie,

and a tender Estelle Parsons, raise and resolve long suppressed issues.

Each is wonderful. If fewer issues are raised (even if caused by)

their husbands, played by a disdainful Buck Henry, a melancholy Christopher

Lloyd, and a guilt-ridden William Biff McGuire, it is the engagement

of Sternhagen and Lloyd’s dim-witted son (Stephen Tobolowsky) to a

sweet dingbat (Julie Hagerty) that sets off a chain of events that

will have you laughing and holding back tears. A joy from start to

finish. Three stars. You won’t feel cheated.

Morning’s At Seven, 149 West 45th Street, New York.

The Crucible

Arthur Miller’s great drama of intolerance "The

Crucible" is being given an arresting production under the direction

of Richard Eyre. Set in 1692, during the Salem witch trials, the tale

of innocent people victimized by a jealous, lecherous girl and her

young followers suffused with devilish fantasies brilliantly comments

on the general evils of superstition and mass hysteria.

Heading a large and splendid cast are Liam Neeson and Laura Linney.

They, with the others, ignite the fire and brimstone plot that, although

it may abound in accusations, denials, threats, and confessions, will

keep you riveted from start to finish. Three stars. You won’t feel cheated.

The Crucible, Virginia Theater, 245 West 52nd Street,

New York. To June 8.

The Elephant Man

Bernard Pomerance’s play "The Elephant Man"

was a huge hit in 1979. The play, about Joseph Merrick, a monstrously

disfigured but highly intelligent man, who, when rescued from being

a sideshow freak, becomes a celebrity in Victorian society, is told

through the memoirs of Frederick Treves, the doctor who put Merrick

in his care.

Although there are excellent performances, notably from Billy Crudup,

as Merrick, Kate Burton as the actress who finds him fascinating,

and Rupert Graves as Trevis, the play, under the clinical direction

of Sean Mathias, is somehow less shocking and less moving than it

was when it was first seen.

Then again, if you haven’t seen it or the film version, you may choose

to now. It remains a forceful reminder how human beings can triumph

over unspeakable hardships and physical torment. Two stars. Maybe you should have stayed home.

The Elephant Man, Royale Theater, 242 West 45th Street,

New York.

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