`Inspector Calls' Returns With Stunning Surreal Set

AN INSPECTOR CALLS Play by J. B. Priestley. At the Royale Theater.

ALTHOUGH the credits describe J.B. Priestley's ``An Inspector Calls'' as a thriller, it is really more of a morality play. But in one way the description is apt; the current Broadway production is absolutely thrilling.

This revival of Priestley's 1945 play was a hit in London for the Royal National Theatre (and won the Olivier Award for Best Revival), and has been imported with one of its lead performers, Kenneth Cranham, who plays Inspector Goole. Otherwise, the cast is new, including such Broadway stalwarts as Rosemary Harris and Philip Bosco.

Stephen Daldry won a fistful of awards for his direction, and quite rightly. He has re-conceived the work in such a way that the play, which can seem quite creaky in lesser hands, has amazing resonance and power.

If you are not familiar with the plot, it concerns a police inspector's visit to an upper-crust home, filled with prosperous, partying inhabitants. A young woman has killed herself by ingesting poison, and he has come to make a few inquiries. We learn that everyone present is in some way responsible for the girl's death. Factory owner Arthur Birling (Bosco) had her fired; his wife Sybil (Harris) led a committee that refused her help; their son Eric (Marcus D'Amico) had an affair with her and was the father of her unborn child, and so on.

Like a British precursor to Columbo, Inspector Goole keeps asking questions and watches as his suspects implicate themselves with their answers. But he is not looking to pursue criminal charges; the girl killed herself, after all. He is merely looking for these people to assume their responsibility, their moral guilt for contributing to the girl's death. In a dazzling series of revelations at the end, the play takes on a spooky, otherworldly dimension.

WHAT distinguishes this production is the brilliant set design by Ian MacNeil. When the curtain rises, we see - rather than the usual drawing-room setting - a bleak, industrial landscape, surreal and Beckettian in its effect, dominated by a large mansion looming in the distance, with rain pouring down onto the stage.

It would diminish the effect of the production to spoil the surprises that the set design and special effects provide. Suffice it to say that the house is one of the primary characters and provides dramatic revelations that more than match those made by its human inhabitants. In terms of sheer special effects, what transpires onstage makes the chandelier in ``Phantom'' look chintzy.

The surprising thing is that the special effects, although they dominate the show, don't distract from the issues raised by the play; rather, they enhance our understanding of them.

``An Inspector Calls'' has been given the kind of production rarely seen on Broadway anymore (for a serious drama, anyway): A huge cast of actors is employed to serve as a sort of silent Greek chorus of townspeople and the musical score is provided by a live, chamber orchestra.

The acting is superb. Bosco has little to do but be blustery, but he does it magnificently. Harris provides shadings to her character that make her far more than the usual upper-crust society matron. The supporting cast is also very effective.

It is fortunate that Kenneth Cranham was able to make the trip with the production, thanks to a special exchange deal between American Equity and British Equity. His inspector is the linchpin of the show, and his balance of humor, toughness, and compassion renders what could be an oblique character endlessly fascinating. It also helps that his face is unfamiliar to most American audiences.

Revivals have been so prevalent on Broadway this season that the Tony committee has seen fit to have separate nominations for dramas and musicals. This production faces stiff competition (``Medea,'' ``Timon of Athens''), but it looks to be the one to beat.

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