NEW YORK — THE SECRET RAPTURE Play by David Hare. Directed by Mr. Hare. At the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. `THE SECRET RAPTURE' exemplifies the way inspired acting can illuminate an eloquent text. British dramatist David Hare has written a troubling comedy that ends in tragedy. His study in relationships against a background of contemporary values will prove as familiar to American theatergoers as to his fellow countrymen. Mr. Hare is concerned with the fate of personal integrity in an age of what one character calls ``loathsome materialism and the sanctification of greed.''
The action begins as the family of an idealistic bookseller are returning from his funeral to his country home. Besides his young widow, Katherine (Mary Beth Hurt), the near relatives include daughters Isobel (Blair Brown) and Marion (Frances Conroy) and Marion's businessman husband, Tom (Stephen Vinovich). The selfless Isobel has been attending to her father during his illness while helping run the small London firm that creates book jackets for the publishing trade.
Isobel soon finds herself having to cope with the unexpected results of her father's passing. Katherine, whose past includes alcoholism and a wayward lifestyle, insists on joining the firm, a proposal to which Isobel, with some reluctance, and her partner, Irwin Posner (Michael Wincott), agree. Before long, brother-in-law Tom has suggested financing an expansion that will enable the moderate enterprise to expand.
Even as she assesses the possibilities, Isobel begins to experience the price of Tom's go-ahead corporate planning. Most poignantly, she discovers the role Irwin has played in the negotiations. Abruptly, she departs the firm and severs their romantic relationship. ``The Secret Rapture'' ends tragically at the country home.
According to a Playbill note by Mr. Hare,`` `The Secret Rapture' is that moment when a nun expects to be united with Christ. In other words, it's death.'' Surrounded though it is by mortality, this work by an author known here for such plays as ``Plenty'' and ``A Map of the World'' abounds in zest and vital theatricality.
With Miss Brown in the focal role, the production centers on Isobel's extraordinary poise and selfless caring. The actress, a three-time Emmy nominee for TV's ``The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd,'' gives an extraordinarily winning portrayal of a woman who can accommodate herself to others without losing her own identity, yet who becomes the victim of betrayal.
THE ensemble in the New York Shakespeare Festival ranks as all-star caliber. Under Mr. Hare's direction, it is consistently brilliant: Miss Hurt as the impulsive but dependent Katherine and Miss Conroy as the insufferably officious but insecure Tory cabinet officer; Mr. Vinovich as a sort of born-again Christian with laissez-faire business principles; and Mr. Wincott as the neurotic artist whose love for Isobel becomes a threatening obsession. As Marion's assistant, Jennifer Van Dyck adds a note of minor sexual intrigue.
The fluid production designed by Santo Loquasto (scenery), Jane Greenwood (costumes), and Richard Nelson (lighting) serves the shifting moods of ``The Secret Rapture.'' Nick Bicat composed the incidental music.
BESIDE HERSELF Play by Joe Pintauro. Directed by John Bishop. At the Circle Repertory Company, through Nov. 11.
THE Circle Repertory Company has launched its 1989-90 season with a quirky romantic comedy about a school teacher just entering retirement. Life for long-widowed Mary (Lois Smith) takes an unexpected turn when a newly assigned United Parcel Service driver (William Hurt) turns up at her East Coast island home and becomes her gingerly gentleman caller.
Augie-Jake's arrival occurs amid reveries populated by ghosts of Mary's younger selves: 11-year-old Alexandra (Melissa Joan Hart), 20-ish Skidie (Calista Flockhart), and 30-ish Violet (Susan Bruce). Drifting in and out of the action, the persistent alter egos serve as voluble reminders of lost hopes, tragic events, and choices made. Spurred on by the trio of former selves, Mary bakes her tastiest pies and gives her gray hair a tint - all in hopes of an autumnal romance with the laconic Augie-Jake. The hopes may even be realized.
PLAYWRIGHT Joe Pintauro manipulates the mingling of past and present with adroitness and quiet humor. Under John Bishop's sympathetic direction, Miss Smith, Mr. Hurt, and their fellow actors do the rest. The excellent Circle Repertory ensemble includes Edward Seamon doubling as Augie-Jake's UPS predecessor and as a black bear who speaks with the voice of Mary's long-lost love. Such is the nature of Mr. Pintauro's sometimes murky fantasy. The shabby-comfortable living-room set was designed by John Lee Beatty, with lighting by Dennis Parichy. Ann Emonts designed the costumes.