It was historical-biographical week on Broadway. First came Roy Dotrice in "Mister Lincoln," a monodrama about the 16th president of the United States. The Lincolnian fragment was followed by "Charlotte," a two-character play about Charlotte von Stein, who was the poet Goethe's mistress.
Herbert Mitgang's Lincoln play, at the Morosco Theater, is a thoughtful stage study of the Civil War president -- by turns humorous, moving, and touched with inspiration. The drama begins at the moment of Lincoln's assassination as he watches a performance of "Our American Cousin," at Ford's Theater in Washington. Mr. Mitgang's device is to imagine that the martyred president senses what is about to happen and then sees his life in a flashback after the assassin fires.
In a work perhaps more notable for its sense of documentary authenticity than for its dramatic structure, Mr. Mitgang ranges across Lincoln's life and career. "Mister Lincoln" glimpses its subject as rail splitter and postmaster, candidate (unsuccessful and successful), wooer (unsuccessful and successful), and finally, of course, as holder of the nation's highest office. The play's second half, dealing with Lincoln's fight against slavery and his ordeal as Civil War president, is the stronger dramatically. One of the most moving passages in his description of a slave auction. The cares of office during a fratricidal struggle, as well as Lincoln's chronic problems with his generals until Grant comes along, are admirably recorded in the writing and in Roy Dotrice's performance.
"Mister Lincoln" refers recurrently to Lincoln's melancholia but also relishes this humor: "I became a military man because I had nothing better to do. . . . I liked the office of postmaster because it gave me the opportunity to read the newspaper before delivering them. . . . [General] McClellan doesn't know the difference between a chestnut horse and a horse chestnut." In one of his many clemency decisions, the President orders that a derelict 14-year-old drummer boy in the Union Army" should be spanked and sent home."
Mr. Dotrice -- the marvelously crotchety John Aubrey of "Brief Lives" -- assumes the mantle of Lincoln with considerable authority. The British visitor could scarcely be expected to make american playgoers forget some of the fine North American actors who have played Lincoln -- beginning, in my own experience , with Canada's Raymond Massey. although physically Mr. Dotrice lacks Lincoln's height, he does suggest the man's moral structure, his compassion, humor, and dedication to the cause of the Union. Thanks to author and player, the stage documentary at the Morosco is not without its satisfactions.
"Mister Lincoln" was staged by Peter Coe, artistic director of the enterprising Citadel Theater of Edmonton, Canada, where the play recently premiered. The dark- paneled set, with its several playing areas, was designed by David L. Lovett. Unfortunately, the recorded background music of the Lincoln era was so poorly amplified at the opening-night performance that it did nothing to hlep evoke the mood and atmosphere of the period.
"Charlotte." Comedy by Peter Hacks. Translated and adapted from the Germany by Herbert and Uta Beghof. Directed by Mr. Berghof. Starring Uta Hagen and Charles Nelson Reilly.
"Charlotte" expands a moderately entertaining sketch idea into a two-act monologue in which Charlotte von Stein (Uta Hagen) recounts her 10-year love affair with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Germany's greatest poet, following his abrupt departure from Weimar. recipient of the relentless revelations is Charlotte's husband, Josias, whose reactions consist of eloquent looks, occasional grunts, snorts, and chuckles, and the single utterance of his wife's name. Charles Nelson Reilly performs this mute matrimonialism with comically inventive resourcefulness. But when Charlotte catches Josias napping, the spectator sympathizes. for, let's face it, Charlotte is a charming bore.
The lady has all the lines in Peter Hack's mixture of confession, defense, rationale, and word portraiture of the rough young genius. Miss Hagen responds with admirable variety of expression to the mainly comic, sometimes touching moods of the prolonged mea culpa. It is a pleasure to welcome one of our highly accomplished actresses and acting teachers back to the commercial theater after her prolonged absence. If only she had left Charlotte in Weimar. The graces of the production staged by Herbert berghof include Lester Polakov's attractive setting for the 1786 green salon in which the one-sided conversation takes place and Patricia Ziprodt's costumes.