Smiling through adversity and dancing through trials

Broadway revives a '30s comedy, weighty European classics

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The current Broadway revivals of "Hedda Gabler," starring Kate Burton; "Dance of Death," with Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren; and "The Women," headlining Cynthia Nixon (HBO's "Sex and the City"), are all handsome, entertaining productions.

But the two weighty European classics, as well as Clare Boothe Luce's bittersweet 1936 comedy ("The Women"), are all so self-consciously played for laughs that these productions fail to reach the brilliant heights of the plays themselves.

Ms. Nixon's performance in The Women as a wealthy Park Avenue socialite being cheated on by her husband - along with the play's sets and costumes by Derek McLane and Isaac Mizrahi - could not be better. Nixon is a revelation. Her Mary (the role played by Norma Shearer in the 1939 movie version) is betrayed by her husband and belittled behind her back by her high-society friends. Yet she is up to the task of figuratively and literally smiling through adversity, enjoying life to the full, supremely confident that her very confidence will help restore her broken marriage.

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But the other performances in this Roundabout Theatre Company revival, directed by Scott Elliott, fail to do justice to Luce's tale of a time and place in American society when many women - most of whom hadn't yet entered the working world of men - seemed to have little more than their feminine wiles to rely on in their quest for success and fulfillment.

Film actress Jennifer Tilly, bedecked with alarming platinum-blond hair, is amusingly tantalizing as the shopgirl who tries to steal Mary's rich husband. But she somehow fails to evoke even some of the same sympathy that, for example, was screen siren Jean Harlow's stock and trade. We should somehow be able to like Tilly's man-eating Crystal Allen.

As Sylvia Fowler, Kristen Johnston, costar of the '90s TV comedy series "Third Rock from the Sun," is superbly campy - delivering comic lines with great gusto and perfect timing. But she fails to convey enough of the loneliness and longing of her gossip-centered life.

Likewise, the new Broadway production of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabler, which had its première at the prestigious Williamstown (Mass.) Theatre Festival and is directed by Nicholas Martin, falls short of being the brooding tragedy in which every great actress going back to Russian diva Alla Nazimova has wanted to star.

As the newlywed aristocratic Hedda Tesman, who is bored with her school husband, George Tesman, Ms. Burton displays the flashes of brooding melancholy that propelled the play from Williamstown to Boston's Huntington Theatre Company last winter, where it received rave reviews. But under Mr. Martin's direction at the Ambassador Theatre, Burton delivers too many of her lines in the first act for laughs, almost as if she were one of the backbiting characters in "The Women." While it's surprising how many of Ibsen's lines can be effectively played in this novel way - and admittedly there are laughs to be had - the impact of the tragedy in Act Two is watered down so much that the play loses its profound emotional impact.

From the unpleasant, often flippant way she treats her bookish husband, we know that Hedda is unhappy. But the question remains: Is Ibsen's Hedda merely a bored but witty woman unhappy with the circumstances life has thrust upon her? Or is she the kind of antiheroine that has inspired the world's greatest actresses to tackle the role, one which some scholars feel is a kind of female equivalent to Shakespeare's "Macbeth?"

As written, Hedda is as much a victim of her own ambitions for a stable and secure, if loveless, marriage as she is vulnerable to the shortcomings of her husband. As forcible as Burton becomes late in the play, and as regal as she looks, she wins our admiration but not our sympathy, which is key to the greatness of the play. Had Burton been directed differently, her performance could have taken a place beside her father's (Richard Burton) memorable portrayal of "Hamlet" on Broadway in the 1960s.

The revival of August Strindberg's Dance of Death, directed by Sean Mathias, has the advantage of brilliant performances by Mr. McKellen, as a vituperative aging Army officer, and Ms. Mirren as his equally sharp-tongued wife. The two great stars are locked in a fierce "dance" of verbal invective - a relationship on which Eugene O'Neill is said to have patterned part of his "Long Day's Journey Into Night." It's exciting theater. Yet despite the relentless intensity of their verbal barbs, and maybe because of some of them, the evening at the venerable Broadhurst Theatre is curiously unsatisfying.

Strindberg's masterwork has come to be known as the quintessential battle-of-the-sexes. But neither McKellen, as an embittered dying captain stationed on a remote island, nor Mirren, as the wife he says he despises, seems to be allowed to take stock of what has kept them together. One yearns for the director to insert the occasional loving glance or touch to bring out what the characters saw in each other in the first place. A more humane touch might have made this revival more riveting.

Despite the play's shortcomings, McKellen's and Mirren's rich voices, ringing with clarity, and their astonishing emotional ranges, provide for a rare, if not altogether fulfilling, theater experience.

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