Heading for London this summer? Here are stage standouts

If last night's Tony Awards indicate anything, it is that Britain has taken Broadway by storm. Not only has the recent flurry of English imports - ``Me and My Girl,'' ``Les Mis'erables,'' ``Starlight Express,'' and ``Les Liaisons Dangereuses,'' - dominated the year's Tony nominations, they have energized a largely moribund Broadway.

Indeed, after weathering one of the worst seasons in many a year, the Great White Way is back on its way. Thanks in large part to the arrival of the sell-out British musicals, overall theater attendance in New York has surged - a hefty 30 percent increase this spring over last year.

And if the press agents are to be believed, next season promises more of the same - another bumper crop of London-originated hits. Beginning in the fall with the arrival of Hugh Whitemore's enthralling ``Breaking the Code,'' starring Derek Jacobi, and Caryl Churchill's searingly funny ``Serious Money,'' New York will again play host to a steady stream of West End successes. Other imports include: ``The Phantom of the Opera,'' Hal Prince's smash musical (with a score by the ubiquitous Andrew Lloyd Webber), ``Chess,'' (directed by the even more ubiquitous Trevor Nunn;) and possibly ``Time,'' the splashy, special-effects musical.

Meanwhile, London theaters are looking forward to a busy summer. Expectations here are high that the season could approach the record-breaking 1985 summer, when 6.4 million Americans crossed the Atlantic. Even with a tumbling dollar, travel agents and airlines are reporting sizable increases in bookings over last year.

All of which is good news for the West End. Just what can a visitor expect to find on the British boards? In a word, new works.

All the big guns of British playwriting (with the notable exception of Harold Pinter) are back in business. Alan Ayckbourn, Peter Nichols, Simon Gray, and Ms. Churchill all have, or will have, new plays up by midsummer. And Peter Shaffer, Ronald Harwood, and Tom Stoppard will boast new works here by the end of the year. Meanwhile, Mr. Nichols's comedy ``A Piece of My Mind'' is already playing at the Apollo; Mr. Ackybourn's ``A Small Family Business'' has just opened at the National Theatre. Churchill's biting ``Serious Money'' moves from the Royal Court to the West End in July, while Mr. Gray's latest drama, ``Melon,'' starring Alan Bates, moves into London this month.

The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) and the National Theatre are offering their own brand of premi`eres, mostly of a literary or political bent, along with the usual classics and revivals - many not to be missed.

In the National's Olivier Theatre, ``King Lear'' and ``Antony and Cleopatra'' remain the two must-see productions there. Both star Anthony Hopkins in the lead roles. Michael Gambon's galvanizing performance in the National's revival of Arthur Miller's ``A View From the Bridge'' is also winning kudos. And one of the summer's more intriguing premi`eres will be the National's marathon five-hour stage adaptation of Eugene Sue's 19th-century French novel ``The Wandering Jew,'' which debuts on the Lyttleton stage in August.

Over at the RSC's main stage, Jeremy Irons is holding forth as a Christ-image ``Richard II,'' while Jonathan Pryce anchors an intensely psychological ``Macbeth.'' At the RSC's refurbished Mermaid Theatre, the company's newest London stage, the rollicking ``Fair Maid of the West,'' continues as the best of the bunch there. Meanwhile, the latest RSC musical, ``Kiss Me, Kate,'' riotously thumps along - for better or worse - at the Old Vic.

However, it is at the RSC's Pit theater in London, where one of the season's most significant plays, ``Sarcophagus,'' has recently opened. This long-awaited dramatization of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster is having its first-ever production outside the Soviet Union. It's an impassioned theatrical extension of a journalistic assignment by Pravda science editor Vladimir Gubaryev and was originally published (apparently uncensored) in a Soviet journal four months after the April 1986 disaster. The play was subsequently performed in numerous regional theaters across the USSR.

Glasnost or not, ``Sarcophagus'' is a work of supreme interest for its rare, eyewitness rendering of the most severe nuclear disaster to date. As fully formed, engaging drama, however, Mr. Gubaryev's play remains every inch the product of a journalist - an instructional, even didactic, bit of theatrical reportage, laudable more for its scrupulous recounting than rigorous dramatic inquiry.

As the author of several documentary films and plays, Gubaryev has set his Chernobyl chronicle in the terminal ward of a radiation institute. Although jammed with victims of the explosion, the ward is the domain of Bessmertny, a long-time patient and self-appointed political and scientific expert who serves as the play's commentator. With his shaved, scarred skull and jutting, rotting teeth, Bessmertny is a grotesque guinea pig, a human totem to the horrors of the nuclear age. ``This is not the age of science, but the age of disaster ... We have to study it from all aspects,'' declares Bessmertny. It is precisely the kind of inquiry that Gubaryev, despite his evident passion for his subject, does not conduct.

Although Jude Kelly's direction keeps the production's exacting, if mechanistic, movement churning (lights flash, alarms sound, doors slam), and Nicholas Woodeson gives a manic, athletic performance as the disfigured Bessmertny, ``Sarcophagus'' remains a chronicle, albeit compassionate, of a medical emergency. It will require a more skillful dramatist to concretize the particular horrors of this, or any, nuclear disaster into something other than standard hospital drama.

A more successful examination of hot political topics is Churchill's latest, ``Serious Money,'' reopening next month in the West End after a sell-out premi`ere run at the feisty Royal Court Theatre. This play is an acerbic examination of Britain's economic deregulation, the so-called Big Bang, and the subsequent unleashing of unbridled ambition, greed, and duplicity.

One of England's most provocative young playwrights and the author of the acclaimed ``Cloud Nine,'' ``Top Girls,'' and ``Fen,'' Churchill is known for her blending of clever theatricality, rigorous intellectuality, and au courant politics. An on-the-money satire of post-Big Bang Britain, ``Serious Money'' might be Churchill's funniest, most accessible play yet - one that should strike the same pay dirt in New York next season.

Commencing with an 18th-century prelude (a snippet from Thomas Shadwell's ``The Stockjobbers''), the play is a modern-day Restoration comedy skewering the manners and morals of the newly moneyed in the 1980s. Although the plot is occasionally too intricate, the play's other delights more than compensate. Churchill has written most of the yuppy-speak text in distancing, rhymed doggerel and the play's political references are breezily, brazenly up-to-the-minute - everything from AIDS to the Financial Times to the recent Guinness scandal.

The play is further buoyed by Max Stafford-Clark's rat-a-tat-tat direction. Peter Hartwell's trading-pit set is wonderfully adaptable and the eight-member cast is a flawless ensemble. There are two standouts: actors Alfred Molina, as Zack, the fast-talking Wall Streeter with the right suit and even righter connections; and Gary Oldman, the obsessive takeover artist overtaken by events beyond his control. Unfortunately, both leads will be replaced when the play reopens next month.

Far less successful on the laugh meter is Peter Nichols's ``A Piece of My Mind,'' a clever but largely unfunny and, at times, embarrassingly self-conscious comedy. Ostensibly a comic chronicling of the rise and fall of a once-promising British playwright, Ted Forrest, and his rival, the successful Miles Whittier, ``A Piece of My Mind'' is really a tissue-thin guise for Nichols's own travails with fellow playwright Tom Stoppard.

In this unengaging and self-serving play, one cannot see the Forrest for the pleas of self-pity. And more is the pity, for Nichols, the acclaimed author of ``A Day in the Death of Joe Egg,'' could have explored such legitimate topics as the artist's insecurities and the price - or absence - of fame. ``A Piece of My Mind'' plays as the product of a mind so consumed with others' successes that it failed to exercise its own significant resources.

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