Broadway Reaches Into the Past for Drama

Three plays make comebacks after decades; producers look to their enduring appeal

If new straight plays are a rarity on Broadway these days, there is no shortage of revivals, as producers, particularly in the major theaters, increasingly look to the past in order to attract audiences starved for serious drama. Important productions of three classic works have opened in recent weeks, with each play making its first appearance on Broadway in decades.

A Midsummer Night's Dream

At the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre

It's criminal that it's been eight years since the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) has made it to Broadway, but New York theatergoers must take what they can get: an 11-week run of the company's production of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Critical comments notwithstanding, an appearance by this superb company stands to be one of the highlights of any theater season.

This "Dream," which arrives in New York after winning accolades in London and playing a three-city North American tour, is not one of the great RSC efforts, and was no doubt chosen for its accessibility and for the wide popularity of Shakespeare's comedy.

The production, directed by RSC artistic director Adrian Noble, is a highly stylized affair. Its look resembles a Magritte painting and its general atmosphere is somewhat akin to a Cirque du Soleil performance. As the play begins, the stage is bathed in a red glow, with only a single door and a swing in view. Anthony Ward's set design is dominated by swings, light bulbs (which dot the stage like fireflies), and umbrellas, small and large.

As is to be expected, the acting is of a very high order, with every part filled by actors who can handle the language with effortless grace. What's missing are outsized personalities, the kind of charisma that would make the production more than an academic experience.

As Titania, Lindsay Duncan, who was so riveting in the company's production of "Les Liaisons Dangereuses," never really catches fire. Alex Jennings, as Oberon, although technically competent, seems less than kingly. Similarly, the performers playing the mismatched couples are amusing but little more. The strongest impressions are made by Desmond Barrit, who makes Bottom (the head of the traveling players who figure prominently in the plot) a hilarious buffoon, and Barry Lynch, who plays Puck (the sprite who does Oberon's bidding) as a swaggering joker.

As the convoluted story spins on, one becomes less interested in Shakespeare's plot machinations than in the visual style of the show. Although it sometimes looks a little bare-bones, and the musical score is a bit obtrusive, this highly choreographed production ultimately enchants.

Inherit the Wind

At the Royale Theatre

Tony Randall's National Actors Theatre (NAT) finally has another winner with this stirring revival of "Inherit the Wind." Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee's play, based on the true-life Scopes "monkey" trial that took place in Tennessee in 1925, is a great American classic that is too rarely seen. Best known for the Stanley Kramer film version starring Spencer Tracy and Frederic March, it is as relevant as ever.

The play presents fictionalized versions of legendary lawyer Clarence Darrow and perennial presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, who duked it out over the issue of whether Darwin's theory of evolution should be taught in the classroom.

Here, the antagonists are Henry Drummond (George C. Scott), the crusty but brilliant defense attorney and celebrated agnostic, and Matthew Harrison Brady (Charles Durning), the Bible thumping revivalist who can't pass up an opportunity to eat a meal or make a speech. They square off in a courtroom battle that is as thrilling as it is thought-provoking. Commenting on the action in witty and cynical fashion is the big city reporter, E. K. Hornbeck (Anthony Heald in the part played by NAT founder Tony Randall in the original Broadway production nearly 40 years ago).

"Inherit the Wind" is as tightly written and powerful a drama as they come, and it is also uncommonly literate and fair-minded. Although it is no secret where the author's sympathies lay, the play takes care not to denigrate either side. Indeed, Brady comes off as more of a tragic figure than a villain, and Drummond is shown to be more religious than he lets on.

The play has been given an estimable production by the NAT, with John Tillinger managing the voluminous stage traffic expertly (the cast numbers over two dozen, something not too often seen on Broadway these days). Scott and Durning make a fine set of adversaries, although both seemed to be having trouble with their lines. Despite his difficulties, however, Scott brings his trademark intensity to the role and delivers a riveting performance.

The Night of the Iguana

At the Criterion Center

Stage Right

Hysteria is a key element in the works of Tennessee Williams. But it's doubtful that he would recognize the degree of it present in Robert Falls's staging of his 1961 play set in a run-down Mexican hotel. The amount of shouting, running, screeching, and physical activity onstage here doesn't exactly jive with characters trying to cope with tropical heat.

The cast is a stellar one, including Cherry Jones - making her first Broadway appearance after winning just about every theatrical award for her stunning work in "The Heiress"; William Peterson ("To Live and Die in L.A.," "Manhunter") as the alcoholic, defrocked reverend-turned-bus-tour guide Lawrence Shannon; and Marsha Mason as the blowzy hotel proprietor Maxine Faulk. Peterson and Jones played the same roles in a recent production at Chicago's Goodman Theatre, also directed by Falls.

This play, depicting a collision of disparate types, is one of Williams's strongest works, a powerful blend of character study and rambunctious comedy. Here, the director's overly broad and campy approach to the material robs it of any credibility.

Williams created a group of boisterous German tourists to parade onstage for periodic comic relief, but in this production they look like they've just stepped out of Alice's Wonderland. And when a couple of the Mexican houseboys wrestle with an iguana, they practically destroy the set.

As if recognizing the chaos around her, Cherry Jones underplays her role. It is not an unintelligent approach, but her one-note vocal delivery and unchang- ing facial expression ultimately prove monotonous. William Peterson is more effective, but he captures Shannon's seediness more than his charisma. Although she has a tendency to pose a bit too dramatically, Mason does bring a genuine vibrancy to her part. And Lawrence McCauley is moving as Hannah's grandfather.

When the production quiets down, the play regains its genuine power. But these moments are too infrequent in the long, three-hour evening. As usual, the Roundabout has provided a superb physical production, with Loy Arcenas's hotel veranda setting and a tropical storm that makes you want to run for cover.

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