Drama Season Shifts Into Overdrive

On and off Broadway, marquees sparkle with familiar names such as Glenn Close, Julie Harris, and Vanessa Redgrave

SUNSET BOULEVARD. Musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber. At the Minskoff Theatre.

November, traditionally one of the busiest months of the year for New York theater, has seen a flurry of activity that surpasses anything since, well, last November.

Chief among the new arrivals, of course, is the long-awaited Andrew Lloyd Webber musical ``Sunset Boulevard,'' finally touching down in New York after productions in London and Los Angeles. The show has been preceded by a flurry of lawsuits and controversy - two actresses (first Patti LuPone and more recently Faye Dunaway) were dropped from their contracts to play the leading role. ``Sunset Boulevard also opened with a record $37 million in advance ticket sales.

The critics have been less than kind, but no matter. The musical is a genuine event, with a lush score that has already yielded two songs destined to be standards; spectacular production values, including a 19-ton set that surpasses anything on Broadway (it makes the glittering chandelier in ``Phantom'' seem like a cheap toy); and an already legendary performance by Glenn Close in the starring role.

The production is tighter and more focused since it opened in Los Angeles, and the cast has improved. Close seems looser, more attuned to the campiness of the role, while not neglecting its tragic aspects. Alan Campbell, as Joe Gillis, the writer who winds up floating face down in her pool, is more confident and assured, and George Hearn plays the faithful servant, Max, with an amazing mixture of economy and forcefulness. The only major newcomer to the cast, Alice Ripley, gives an appealing ingenue performance.

The virtues of ``Sunset'' lie more in the production than in the show itself. Years from now, it is not a likely musical to be performed by school groups. But in its current incarnation, it is wonderful entertainment: an eye-popping, melodramatic spectacle that will run for years and is likely to provide quite a few mature actresses with the musical role of a lifetime. And it has visibly energized Broadway, giving the street the charge that only a major new hit can.

THE GLASS MENAGERIE. Play by Tennessee Williams. At the Criterion Center.

Two important dramatic works have been given worthy, if imperfect, Broadway revivals. The Roundabout brings back Tennessee Williams's ``The Glass Menagerie,'' starring five-time Tony winner Julie Harris (she holds the record for a performer) in another role of a lifetime for actresses: Amanda Wingfield.

The production also stars Zeljko Ivanek as Tom, the narrator, who gives us ``truth in the guise of illusion,'' Calista Flockheart as the sensitive, tortured Laura, and Kevin Kilner as the Gentleman Caller who changes their lives.

As staged by the esteemed Chicago director Frank Galati, this is a quiet, careful ``Menagerie,'' and as always the beauty and lyricism of the play, one of the greatest modern works, shines.

But the impact of the production is surprisingly muted, and Harris gives a realistic but drab performance that saps Amanda of her illusionary glamour. When she prattles on about Southern hospitality and ``gentlemen callers,'' it is too obvious that she doesn't believe in it herself.

Ivanek, as Tom, seems to be attempting to play a young Tennessee Williams in his mannered performance as Tom, and too much of the emotion gets lost. Flockheart and Kilner are more effective, and their quiet scene together, when Laura's hopes are finally dashed for good, is powerfully moving.

An irritating device of this production (although one first called for by Williams himself) is the use of projections on the rear wall of the set, of both images and quotes from the play. It is distracting and ultimately redundant.

THE SHADOW BOX. Play by Michael Cristofer. At Circle in the Square Theatre.

An all-star cast, including Mercedes Ruehl, Marlo Thomas, Jamey Sheridan, and Estelle Parsons, has been assembled for the revival at Circle in the Square of Michael Cristofer's Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning 1977 play ``The Shadow Box.''

This theater has been dormant for a long time, but now, under the co-artistic direction of Josephine Abady (the former artistic director of the Cleveland Playhouse), it has been restored to life with a play about death.

Set in a hospice for the terminally ill, the work examines the family relationships of three patients, and the way that they come to terms with their situations. The onset of the AIDS epidemic and the subsequent plays dealing with it have robbed Cristofer's work of some of its impact. But it is still a deeply moving study of people struggling to find essential truths. Its ``Our Town''-like finale, expressing the theme of treasuring every moment of life, still packs a wallop.

VITA & VIRGINIA. Adaptation by Eileen Atkins. At Union Square Theatre.

Anyone interested in the craft of acting should head over to the Union Square Theatre, where you can see the luminous Vanessa Redgrave and Eileen Atkins playing the title roles in ``Vita & Virginia.

Adapted by Atkins from the correspondence between two members of the Bloomsbury Group, authors Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, the play is directed by another notable actress, Zoe Caldwell.

With rare exceptions, plays devised from correspondence have a tremendously static quality, and this one is no exception.

Although both characters are onstage together the whole time, you never really feel the intellectual charge that would result from seeing these two fascinating women interact.

The text deals with subjects both momentous and trivial, and often frustrates in its elliptical wanderings. But there's no fault to be found with the acting, which can thankfully be savored in an intimate Off Broadway theater.

Atkins can now play Woolf in her sleep, having already played the writer to great acclaim in her one-woman show, ``A Room of Her Own,'' both onstage and for public television. The portrayal has lost none of its prickly edginess or fascination.

Redgrave, looking younger and more beautiful than ever, plays Sackville-West with an almost heartbreaking poignancy. When Vita is told by Virginia that she intends to model the title character of her novel ``Orlando'' after her, Redgrave's face seems to melt into a paroxysm of joy and gratitude.

But Redgrave also never lets us forget Vita's haughtiness, pride, and upper-class manners, as well as her attraction to Virginia. It is a complex, radiant, and utterly captivating performance, and it is not to be missed.

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