NEW YORK — PRIN Play by Andrew Davies. Directed by John Tillinger. At the Manhattan Theatre Club through July 6. THE heroine of ``The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie'' turned out to be a romantic fascist. Terence Rattigan's Andrew Crocker-Harris of ``The Browning Version'' was dubbed ``the Himmler of the lower fifth'' by his disrespectful pupils. But they were as nothing compared to the totalitarian perfectionist of Andrew Davies' ``Prin,'' now having its American premi`ere at the Manhattan Theatre Club.
Prin (Eileen Atkins) is more formally the principal of an English teachers training college. The academic martinet is dedicated to the pursuit of excellence, to finding the handful of extraordinary talents among a mass of mediocrity. She does not suffer fools, or almost anyone else, gladly. A verbal precisionist, she is the mistress of ironic disparagement, the unveiled insult, the crushing put-down. In short, she is the kind of intellectual snob who gives elitism a bad name.
Prin speaks also for disillusioned idealism. Thirty years ago, in her Oxford days, she spurned communism when the notorious Anthony Blunt tried to recruit her for spying. Instead, Prin opted for her present career, in the hope that ``we could change the world through education.'' The hope has long since faded.
The disillusioned principal is currently embroiled in a battle to prevent her college from being merged with a technical institution or a neighboring university. Since either prospect is anathema to her, Prin wages war with her usual weapons - insult, scorn, and browbeating. Miss Atkins's steely performance takes Prin on her own abrasive terms, neither giving nor asking quarter. But even with the poignant solo epilogue provided her by Mr. Davies, this formidable actress is hard pressed to win much sympathy for the academic tyrant.
John Tillinger has directed with the kind of sharp intelligence that does justice to the play's conflicting personal and psychological forces. The appealing Amy Wright fulfills all the requirements of Dibs, the assistant principal and Prin's longtime companion, who at last forsakes docility to declare her own independence.
There are stalwart performances by John Curless as biologist Dr. Boyle (whom Prin insists on calling ``Dr. Bile''), John Christopher Jones as a professor who gets one of the students into trouble, Wendy Makenna as the compliant girl in the case, and Remak Ramsay as her irate father, who also happens to be the local education director.
The attractive production designed by John Lee Beatty (setting), Jane Greenwood (costumes), and Richard Nelson (lighting) suits the needs of Mr. Davies' sharp-tongued comedy.