When Robert Brustein left the Yale Repertory Theater three seasons ago, taking with him a good deal of his staff and actors, there was much speculation as to what would happen to what some said was the shambles of an organization he left behind. Lloyd Richards of the O'Neill Theater Center in New London was given the task, and he appears to have succeeded in keeping things together.
The production now on the boards is a new adaptation of Washington Irving's classic tale ''Rip Van Winkle,'' subtitled here ''The Works.'' It is ambitious, it is handsome to look at, it is superbly acted.
David Jones has been given the task of translating Richard Nelson's adaptation into stagecraft. He has managed it brilliantly. Douglas O. Stein's set is handsome to behold - simple, with a perspective of maskings and side curtains, back to a Hudson-Riverish backdrop. Signs, fences, trees, walls, and whatever else are flown down from above for smooth set changes, and despite the unusual length of the show - three hours plus intermissions - one never tires of the visual. And one never tires of Mr. Jones's inventive use of that space for the entire gamut of experiences from the forthrightly slapstick, to the existentially desolate. The look is further enhanced by Jennifer Tipton's telling lighting, and Gene K. Lakin's costumes.
The acting is superior, right down the line. But the manner in which Mr. Nelson has chosen to tell the familiar story and elaborate upon it is at best perplexing. Poor Washington Irving! Now his simple tale is the framework for what one takes to be a scalding study of capitalistic corruption, the excesses of booze vs. the excesses of religion, and a study of two men pitted one against the other, who meet the same meaningless end simultaneously and together.
Suddenly, the sleepy Kaatskill Valley is the battleground for the factories (''The Works'') being built by Hans Derrick on property owned by Rip. Rip is a hopeless alcoholic, an illiterate, a man of the earth. The first part of Nelson's elaborate tale sets the characters and takes us up to Rip's discovery that Derrick is trying to cheat him out of his vast property holdings, whereupon Rip flees to the mountains and meets Henrik Hudson. The next part finds Rip coming back, 15 years later, to an urbanized village he neither recognizes nor understands. In the third part, another 15 years later, Rip has become a born-again revivalist.
Though Nelson has thrown in just about every philosophical and theatrical posture from Brecht and Beckett through to Edward Bond, he never does reveal what it is he wants to say. The style of dialogue careens from period to period with heady abandon. And his peasants and people of the earth are all portrayed as annoyingly stupid.
Mr. Jones almost makes us forget these huge lapses and lacks, so fine is his direction. As Rip, Seth Allen gives a virtuoso performance that ranges from inebriation, to Learian madness, to Calvinistic sanctimoniousness, all expertly projected. Gerry Bamman's Derrick is first convincingly arrogant, then guilt-haunted.
Laura Esterman's Gretchen (Rip's long-suffering wife) communicates moments of touching tragedy. Kaiulani Lee, Alan Rosenberg, and Stephen Lang complete the adult principal cast. In supporting roles, Steven Ryan, John E. Harnagel, and especially Frank Maraden in the impossible role of the simpleton-demented Shepherd, shine.