Broadway's Tony Award Season Gets Its Power From High-Voltage Stars

Faces from television and film add clout to plays opening just before nomination cutoff

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

People have been complaining for years about the plethora of revivals on Broadway. Theater critics value them highly, however, knowing that a greater likelihood exists for an enjoyable and worthwhile evening. Of the more than two dozen current shows, the best play was written in the 1940s (''The Heiress'') and the best musical in the 1920s (''Show Boat'').

In the final, season-ending flurry of new shows (all looking to open before the Tony Awards eligibility deadline -- May 4), four new revivals have arrived, each offering generous artistic rewards, as well as big-name stars.

They include Ralph Fiennes in ''Hamlet''; Helen Mirren, Ron Rifkin, and F. Murray Abraham in Turgenev's ''A Month in the Country''; Mercedes Ruehl and Anthony LaPaglia in Tennessee Williams's ''The Rose Tattoo''; and Kathleen Turner in Jean Cocteau's ''Indiscretions.''

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Hamlet

At the Belasco Theatre.

Fiennes, unknown on these shores two years ago, is now a star big enough to sell out virtually the entire run of a Shakespeare play on Broadway.

The actor has already displayed his range by playing the psychotic concentration-camp officer in ''Schindler's List'' and the intellectual, tortured Charles Van Doren in Robert Redford's ''Quiz Show.''

Now, first in London and currently on Broadway, he tackles his most challenging part ever.

Fiennes is that rarity, an actor who combines a supreme mastery of technique with movie-star looks. His ''Hamlet'' isn't selling out because he's a great actor, although he is. It's selling out because he looks the part; he has the kind of dashing, matinee-idol handsomeness that has been necessary to play the melancholy Dane since John Barrymore.

This ''Hamlet'' is a production of the Almeida Theatre Company, directed by Jonathan Kent. It is a show shorn of any gimmicks or pretensions, and it is performed by a superb cast of actors who bring utter clarity and dramatic power to the text. Peter J. Davison's stark set, Mark Henderson's lighting, and Jonathan Dove's music combine to create a powerfully ominous mood.

Fiennes does not offer a particularly distinctive or idiosyncratic performance, merely an excellent one. His one quirk is the breakneck speed with which he races through some passages, but it is not an unwelcome technique; at this point, we don't need to hear another slow ''To be or not to be,'' and even with judicious cutting, this ''Hamlet'' runs over three hours. He is ably supported by Tara Fitzgerald (of such films as ''Sirens'' and ''A Man of No Importance'') as Ophelia; Francesca Annis, giving a sensual performance as Gertrude; and James Laurenson as Claudius.

A Month in the Country

Roundabout Theatre Company at the Criterion Center.

Turgenev's melancholy 1872 comedy, ''A Month in the Country,'' is even more of a rarity on Broadway.

British actress Helen Mirren (of TV's ''Prime Suspect,'' and a recent Oscar nominee for ''The Madness of King George'') stars as Natalya Petrovna, an upper-crust society woman who falls madly in love with Aleksei (Alessandro Nivola), a young student who is tutoring her son.

This dismays her perennial suitor and family friend Rakitin (Ron Rifkin). Her husband is also unhappy, because he thinks his wife is leaving him for Rakitin. Vera (Kathryn Erbe), a young woman who is staying with the family, is also miserable, because she loves the student herself. Finally, another family friend, Dr. Shpigelsky (F. Murray Abraham), is wooing the family's governess (Gail Grate) and trying to arrange a marriage between Vera and an associate who stands to reward him handsomely.

The play is a witty examination of the disastrous pitfalls into which lovers can slide. It requires expert staging and acting: Played too broadly, it can degenerate into farce; played too seriously, it can induce a soporific stupor.

Director Scott Ellis occasionally lets the tone waver here, but overall he maintains a firm grasp of the material.

The results are pure fun. Mirren gives in to her character's foolishness, letting us see how this staid woman is practically reduced to a schoolgirl through her infatuation. Abraham also gives a delightfully clownish performance. Rifkin and Erbe, on the other hand, subtly illustrate the pain of unrequited love. Another strong element is Santo Loquasto's spare, light-drenched set. Its simplicity complements a play that is otherwise cluttered with emotion.

The Rose Tattoo

At Circle in the Square Theatre.

Speaking of emotion, look no further than the Circle in the Square's revival of ''The Rose Tattoo,'' Tennessee Williams's 1951 portrait of an earthy Sicilian widow, Serafina della Rose, who prays to her late husband's ashes every night. Living only through her memories of him and the ever so symbolic rose tattoo that adorned his chest, she is brought back to life through her encounter with Alvaro Mangiacavallo, an Italian truck driver who wanders into her life.

Mercedes Ruehl, a marvelous actress who is not known for subtlety, fits the part. Her accent and her mannerisms take a little getting used to, but by the second act she becomes terrifically affecting while delivering a performance of comic robustness. She is ably matched by Anthony LaPaglia, who brings an unforced naturalness to his role, making Alvaro appealing in his neediness.

Williams's play is a bit over the top, and is obviously of a different time. The first act, for instance, features more than a dozen characters who are barely heard from again. But it still holds the stage beautifully. Although it is not in a league with his certified classics, it is one of his gentlest and most heartwarming works.

INDISCRETIONS

At the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.

Jean Cocteau's ''Indiscretions'' (the French title is the more accurate ''Les Parents Terribles'') is making its Broadway debut -- a mere 57 years after it was written.

But this shocking boulevard comedy is more daring than anything contemporary playwrights have come up with recently. It's daring in a moral sense, that is, rather than with scatological content. This revival, with a largely new cast, is the same as the award-winning Royal National Theatre production presented in London last year.

The play, which was banned in Paris upon its first production and again with a 1941 revival, presents the ultimate dysfunctional family caught in an amorous roundelay that is dizzying.

With its frank depiction of incestuous feelings and its full male nudity, ''Indiscretions'' is not for everyone.

''Indiscretions'' has a rambling stylistic messiness that complements its outrageous content. It veers wildly from melodrama to satire to farce to tragedy, and is never totally successful at any one of them. Still, the play has a wicked wit, and has been staged with a welcome abandon and a lot of imagination by Sean Mathias.

The actors contribute greatly to the play. Kathleen Turner, who will probably figure most prominently at the box office, is actually the least effective, although her smoky voice does convey her character's increasing emotional desperation.

The best moments come from Roger Rees, who plays the father with a flailing, hysterical energy, and Eileen Atkins, who gives Aunt Leo a rigidly formal demeanor that brilliantly masks the passions raging underneath.

Jude Law plays Michael with an appealing mixture of youthful bravado and vulnerability. And opposite such pros as Atkins and Rees, Cynthia Nixon more than holds her own.

With its darkly satirical view of family relations, ''Indiscretions'' is one of the most audacious theatrical events of the season.

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