'Master Class' in a Class by Itself

Broadway sparkles with two good dramas and a period comedy

MASTER CLASS

John Golden Theatre.

TERRENCE MCNALLY is looking more and more like the savior of drama on Broadway. His Tony-winning ''Love! Valour! Compassion!'' was the best play of last year, and his newest work, which arrived recently after earlier stints in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Washington, is the only dramatic hit of the season so far, having already recouped its investment, and is virtually sold out until the end of the year. It also offers actress Zoe Caldwell the role of a lifetime; she's already a shoo-in for next year's best actress Tony award.

The conceit of the play is ingenious. It depicts legendary opera singer Maria Callas teaching a master class for young performers, and is based on classes that the singer actually gave at Juilliard back in the early 1970s (which playwright McNally attended).

Music critics have complained that the portrait of Callas in the play is not exactly accurate, and that the character's behavior in the play in no way resembles her actual teaching style. No matter. If this isn't the way it was, it's the way it should have been. McNally's Callas is an endlessly fascinating creation and an ultimately sympathetic figure. And in the form of Zoe Caldwell, she is absolutely magnetic.

Teaching a succession of young singers, including the overweight, overly enthusiastic Sophie (Karen Kay Cody), the terrified, overdressed Sharon (Audra McDonald), and the arrogant, smug Tony (Jay Hunter Morris), she demolishes them time and time again with a sneering remark or a withering glance. But through it all, her love of music pours out of her.

Never has a performer achieved so much with so little obvious effort. Caldwell, a three-time Tony winner, is able to say volumes about Callas with minute physical gestures (a turn of the head, a sashaying walk, a bewildered stare), which are devastating in their impact. The actress seems totally inhabited by the character, no more so than in the periodic monologues in which Callas recalls her past triumphs in the roles that her young students are trying to sing. In a coup de theatre, the bare classroom set is transformed into the interior of the La Scala opera house, and we hear the real Callas singing. These scenes provide the most goosebump-raising moments to be found on Broadway.

Racing Demon

Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont.

David Hare's ''Racing Demon'' is about the trials and tribulations of the Church of England. The play won awards and caused considerable discussion when it premiered at the Royal National Theatre in London under Richard Eyre's direction. Lincoln Center has provided the play with a highquality production for its American debut, including a superb cast, with Eyre again directing.

The play is concerned with a crisis faced by the Rev. Lionel Espy (Joseph Sommer), who, while struggling with a faltering faith, comes under attack from a younger, more zealous colleague, the Rev. Tony Ferris (Michael Cumpsty). Ferris thinks Espy is failing to offer any genuine succor to inner-city parishioners, particularly in the case of Stella (Patrice Johnson), a young black woman physically abused by her husband. The bishop in charge of the area (George N. Martin) ultimately comes to agree with Ferris.

But Reverend Espy also has his supporters, including his jovial colleagues the Rev. ''Streaky'' Bacon (Paul Giamatti) and the Rev. Harry Henderson (Brian Murray), and, ironically, Ferris's former girlfriend Frances (Kathryn Meisle), with whom he broke up after a spiritual epiphany. While all this is going on, Espy must also deal with the tragedy of his wife Heather's (Kathleen Chalfant) steady descent into dementia.

Hare's writing, which leans as usual toward the dry and intellectual, also tends to undercut the drama's impact, although the characters are complex and engaging. Espy is an ultimately sympathetic figure, and his adversary, Ferris, is not simply a religious zealot but also a deeply feeling and compassionate man.

The play has been fluidly staged by Eyre, who has elicited superb performances from the entire cast, with particularly powerful work from Sommer, Cumpsty, Murray, and Meisle.

Bob Crowley has designed a simple yet striking set that, with the aid of the ever-reliable Wendall Harrington's superb projections, manages to fill the play's demand for numerous locations.

The School For Scandal

Lyceum Theatre

It isn't too often that we get Restoration (well, actually Post-Restoration, but who's counting?) comedies on Broadway, so we should be grateful to Tony Randall's National Actors Theatre (NAT) for making it possible with their quality production of Richard Brinsley Sheridan's 1777 play ''The School for Scandal.''

The play, which in the best period tradition features characters with descriptive names like Lady Sneerwell, Joseph Surface, Benjamin Backbite, and Mrs. Candour, deals with the malicious effects of gossip on a group of 18th-century upper- class Londoners.

Randall stars as Sir Peter Teazle, an older man married to the much younger Lady Teazle (Kate Forbes), and ruing his circumstances since she is making his life miserable and squandering all his money. Lady Teazle is being amorously pursued by Joseph Surface (Simon Jones), but Teazle wrongly suspects Joseph's nephew Charles (Tom Hewitt), a young rake in desperate financial circumstances, of trying to seduce her.

The convoluted plot involves much chicanery and mistaken identities, and it can lose audiences pretty quickly unless done with high style. Gerald Freedman's production, a collaboration between the NAT and Cleveland's Great Lakes Theater Festival (and featuring members of the Acting Company), generally gets the job done.

The proceedings move along briskly, and the acting level is more consistent than is usual in NAT productions. Randall, who has tended to cast himself in less-than-suitable parts, does a fine, understated job, and Simon Jones, a superb classical actor who has enlivened the New York stage for many years, scores big laughs.

In a scene where Joseph and Lady Teazle are discovered in a comprising situation, Jones and Forbes maximize the humor with an extended silence that is much funnier than any bit of stage business they could have come up with.

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