Emlyn Williams as Charles Dickens

Emlyn Williams as Charles Dickens A solo performance of scenes from Dickens novels and stories adapted by Mr. Williams.

One of the incomparable pleasures of regular theatergoing is the periodic return of "Emlyn Williams as Charles Dickens," first performed in 1951. After too long an absence, Mr. Williams is back on Broadway, at the downstairs Century Theater, for an engagement announced to last through Feb. 1. From the moment of his first entrance -- bearded, clad in Victorian evening dress, with red boutonniere and red satin watch fob -- until his deferential bow to the lectern piled high with fat volumes, the actor-as-author transports his audiences into a succession of Dickensian worlds-within-worlds.

In the course of nine selections, Mr. Williams celebrates Dickens as unexceled storyteller, satirist, caricaturist, and social moralist. There is the comedy -- high and low -- of "Moving in Society" from "Our Mutual Friend" and "Mrs. Gamp" from "Martin Chuzzlewit." There are the quiet agony and terror of "Paul" from "Dombey and Son." "Mr. Chops" tells a tragicomic tale of "a Little Person," while "Once Upon a Time" indicts the world's capacity to forget the terrible sacrifices of battle.

The marvelous thing about these and other scenes is how Mr. Williams employs the actor's ways and means to animate and vivify the elaborate richness of the text. His eloquent but economical gestures and bodily movement are perforce limited by the very nature of this platform appearance.

It is with his voice -- the actor's greatest natural instrument -- that Mr. Williams involves us irresistibly in these strange, comic, and haunting recitals.

His ear for accents is as astonishing as hig gift for delivery -- from lower-class misplaced aitches to middle-class affectation, to aristocratic hauteur. The horrific "Bedtime Story For a Good Child" is recited in the cheerful cockney that Shaw's Henry Higgins would one day excoriate. Contrast it with the sustained ominousness with which Mr. Williams speaks the opening scenes from "A Tale of Two Cities" and you get some idea of his extraordinary range.

"Emlyn Williams as Charles Dickens" remains a theatrical gem. The polishing that has gone on in the course of 30 years merely makes it shine more b rightly.

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