NEW YORK — SHIRLEY VALENTINE Comedy by Willy Russell. Directed by Simon Callow. Starring Pauline Collins. A WORKING-CLASS British housewife asserts her independence and learns about life beyond her housing-estate bungalow in ``Shirley Valentine,'' at the Booth Theatre.
The frequently hilarious but underlyingly poignant British import marks the impressive Broadway debuts of Pauline Collins, star of the one-woman play; Willy Russell, author of ``Educating Rita'' and other works; and director Simon Callow, whose credits span the theatrical spectrum. Miss Collins, best known in the United States as the spunky but susceptible Sarah of public television's ``Upstairs, Downstairs,'' lists a train of stage and TV appearances in her Playbill biography. ``Shirley Valentine'' won Laurence Olivier Awards for the actress and the play.
The comely British star is cast as a middle-aged matron confronting the sense of unfulfillment that drives her to an act of independence. ``Why do we have all these dreams and hopes if we don't ever use them?'' asks the bemused Shirley, addressing the outcropping of rocks that form the second-act Grecian setting. Back home in Liverpool, Shirley has delivered her confidences to the pastel walls of her well-appointed kitchen. In either setting, the spectator is the attentive eavesdropper.
Shirley rewards the audience by giving variety to her solo recital. In the course of the verbal ramblings, one learns that her two children are grown up and more or less on their own. She is married to an apparently devoted but demanding man named Joe, who expects his tea on the table as he walks in the door and who brooks no variations in the expected menu. When Shirley serves him fried eggs and chips instead of the ground beef he expected, Joe tips the meal over, with messy results for Shirley's dress. The incident prompts Shirley to accept an invitation to join her feminist friend on a Greek island holiday.
In Act II, the rocky Greek terrain becomes the silent background for Shirley's account of her new adventures, including a momentary amorous fling with a Greek bartender. By the play's end, Mr. Russell hints that Shirley may yet rescue even Joe from the life he has been wasting. Negotiations have progressed at least to the point of long-distance phone calls.
In any case, Shirley has made her point. And so has Russell's seemingly impromptu assortment of anecdotes, reminiscences, and observations. Frankly explicit at times, the comic writing contains more than a few sad and even bitter undertones. It also requires the versatile Collins to mimic a wide range of accents. Besides master-of-the-house Joe, the numerous incidental ``players'' of Shirley's life drama include small son Brian when he rewrote the Nativity play during a children's performance, a disdainful school mistress, a party of boorish British vacationers, a snooty neighbor, and the Greek seducer.
As a leisurely piece of make-believe theatrical realism, ``Shirley Valentine'' might almost pass as one of its heroine's fantasies. Whatever its nature and course, the result is a tribute to Russell's warmly sympathetic portraiture and to Collins's appealing performance under Mr. Callow's direction. The production at the Booth comes to Broadway replete with the visual assets of Bruno Santini's set design and Nick Chelton's lighting.