Osborne play: timeless angst well portrayed

'Inadmissible Evidence', Starring Nicol Williamson. Drama by John Osborne, presented by Roundabout Theater Company.Directed by Anthony Page. Nicol Williamson has close ties to "Inadmissible Evidence." It was the vehicle for his first burst of fame in 1964, when he played the leading role in his London premiere. And a year later he made his Broadway debut portraying the same irascible character, who has become a theatrical landmark -- Bill Maitland, a cynical London solicitor whose ranting, conniving, and agonizing are the foundations for two long acts of frequently fascinating drama.

Now Williamson has returned to this hugely demanding role. Fittingly, the new production is staged by Anthony Page, who directed Williamson in the original stage and film versions, and now serves as director of the Roundabout Theater Company.

The play itself has held up well, as John Osborne's clinical yet reasonably compassionate plunge into a kind of angst that seems as regrettably relevant to the early '80s as to the middle '60s. Ensconced in his dusty office, surrounded by underlings and relations who are just about fed up with him, Maitland works his way through a Whole Earth Catalog of human failings, from sloth and lechery to simple nastiness.

The narrowing thing -- and the thing that lifts the drama above mere sordidness -- is that Maitland knows exactly what a loser he's become. He plows through his self-inflicted torments with eyes wide open. The play's poetry is in the pity of his condition.

The new Roundabout production brings out the theatrical strength of the play, though it fails to soften the occasional excesses and weaknesses. The rhythms are strong, the pace is quick, the characters are delineated by their movements as well as their words and gestures.The setting is crustily realistic, too, and the lighting design is uncommonly dramatic.

With all these virtues, it's too bad director Page hasn't found a way to integrate the beginning (a stylized dream sequence) more fully into the naturalistic stream of the main action. Also, at moments when the play seems to ramble or strain for meaning, Williamson becomes too mannered -- acting his head off, when less emphasis would better serve the flow of emotions and events.

Still, this is a strong evening that consistently commands attention. Williamson's performance is explosive nearly all the time, and a mostly splendid cast backs him up. Special credit goes to Philip Bosco as an unassuming attorney, Barbara Caruso as a distraught client, and Elaine Bromka and Christine Estabrook as the hapless women in Maitland's life. The evidence is clear and admissible: In 1981 "Inadmissible Evidence" still makes an unbeatable case for the artistic partnership of Osborne, Page, and Williamson.

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