Exceptional acting brings Byron's ghost to life

'Childe Byron', Play by Romulus Linney. Directed by Marshall W. Mason. Apparitions have populated Romulus Linney's two most recent plays. Tiresome ancestral ghosts haunted "The Captivity of Pixie Shedman." The tempestuous shade of Lord Byron materializes in "Childe Byron," at the attractively rearranged Circle Repertory Company playhouse on Sheridan Square. It is one of those unevenly written plays which calls for exceptional skills and energies from the principal performers. At the Circle Rep, the demands are exceptionally met by William Hurt and Lindsay Crouse.

Mr. Linney's notion is to have byron's ghost confront his fatally ill daughter, Ada, from whom the poet had been separated since her infancy. By coincidence, Byron and Ada both died at the age of 36. The time of the confrontation is 1852. In a drugged and hallucinating state, Ada has summoned her notorious parent to give an account of his life. After a series of scandals that shocked fashionable London, Byron had left England and spent the remainder of his life in Italy.

In a series of flashbacks from the opening scene, Mr. Linney presents his version of Byronic fact and legend. The title alludes to "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage" (1812-16), the travel poem with the publication of which Byron "awoke and found himself famous." But "Childe Byron" is less a pilgrimage than a two-hour package tour of high (and low) spots. It touches on such matters as his dueling prowess, the indifferent critical response to his early poetry, the slight lameness that continually embarrassed him, his courtship and disastrous marriage, his sexual irrigularities, and his antisocial behavior as a shocking literary lion. While quoting snatches of his poetry to bolster the dialogue, the play virtually ignores Byron's international literary reputation, accomplishments as traveller and scholar, and championship of Greek freedom.

Mr. Hurt gives a magnetic, intelligently spirited performance as Byron. His aristocrat-poet is a man of irony, mercurial moodiness, rages and outrages. When the script allows, he and the versatile Miss Crouse -- who plays Ada's mother in the intervening scenes -- create the kind of theatrical excitement that delights and stimulates. Like her mother a mathematician, the brilliant Ada invented an "analytical engine" that apparently anticipated the computer. A final scene that begins as a clash of temperaments and convictions moves at last toward a common ground of mutual respect and even reconciliation.

David Potts has designed a handsomely simple all-purpose setting and the beautiful period costumes are by Michael Warren Powell. Dennis Parichy lighted the production. Belying the play's locales, the cast directed by Marshall W. Mason speaks for the most part in accents that sound closer to post-colonial North America than to 19th-century Britain. Besides playing numerous incidental parts, the supporting actors periodically form a Greek chorus to comment on passing events and keep the exposition going. Incidental music has be en borrowed from Berlioz.

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