Nathalie Sarraute's vivid memoir, `Childhood,' takes to the stage

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Childhood; For No Good Reason ``Childhood,'' adapted by Simone Benmussa from the book by Nathalie Sarraute. Starring Glenn Close. Translated by Barbara Wright. ``For No Good Reason'' by Miss Sarraute. Translated by Kate Mortley. Both plays directed by Miss Benmussa. It takes the sensitivity, concentration, and quiet authority of Glenn Close to hold the spectator's attention through the lucid but sometimes lulling reflections of ``Childhood,'' at the Samuel Beckett Theatre. An actress of remarkable clarity, Miss Close serves as commentator, narrator, and transparency for the vivid recollections of Nathalie Sarraute's preteen years. The daughter of divorced parents, both of whom remarried, Nathalie divided that crucial time between Russia, where her mother lived, and Paris, where her 'emigr'e Russian father made his home.

Adapted for the stage by Simone Benmussa, ``Childhood'' is a collage of fragments viewed through the eyes of an impressionable, precocious child and set down many decades later with what must have been an acquired tranquillity. In a lengthy monologue interpolated with vignettes from the past, a character identified as Actress (Miss Close) recalls the minutiae and reverberant events of a child's life, in which the literalness of what is said can have significance ranging from the trivial to the traumatic.

Meanwhile, the portraits emerge of an apparently indifferent mother (Andrea Weber); an unthinking stepmother (Marek Johnson), who can tell the child, ``This is not your home''; and a kindly but shy father (Stephen Keep). In her chic ensemble by Sonia Rykiel -- white blouse, black sweater and skirt -- Miss Close personifies the articulate adult/child observer, involved in the reminiscence yet from a neutral distance. She reports but does not judge. As it progresses, ``Childhood'' acquires a kind of odd fascination. The periodic introduction into the dialogues of Miss Sarraute's recorded voice adds authenticity and flavor. But in the end, the play proves more literary than theatrical.

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``For No Good Reason,'' the curtain raiser, is a livelier piece of theater. Miss Sarraute here demonstrates how the weights of words and their nuances, the way sentences are phrased and accented, become the substance of a confrontation between two longtime friends who have grown estranged. In their verbal duel, the self-acknowledged outsider (Max Wright) seeks to counter the thrusts of the friend (Mr. Keep), whom he suspects, with some justification, of patronizing him. The exercise in one-upmanship (or is it downmanship?) proceeds amusingly but ruefully in the deft performances of Mr. Wright as the aggrieved one and Mr. Keep as the not-quite aggressor.

Miss Benmussa's direction responds to the subtle ambivalences and indirections of ``For No Good Reason,'' just as she enhances the perceptions of ``Childhood.'' She has also collaborated with Antoni Taule on the scenic and lighting design for a gray-on-gray interior that opens up (in ``Childhood'') to reveal some exquisite back projections of outdoor views. Apart from Miss Close's outfit, the attractive production has been costumed by Gail Brassard. Through June 30.

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