'Quartermain's Terms': a bittersweet comedy from Long Wharf Theater

So much for revolving stages and big production budgets. The Long Wharf Theater in New Haven lavished its main stage, main production budget, and main efforts on what looked like a sure winner: the American premiere of Julian Mitchell's ''Another Country.'' Meanwhile, the company tucked Simon Gray's ''Quartermain's Terms'' away in the smaller theater space where you get tickets with no seat number assigned to them, and you have to do without a revolving stage.

''Another Country,'' which closes Feb. 13, is a tale of Eton boys, their naughty ways, and the ill they do their country. It has everything going for it but a raison d'etre.

On the other hand, the delicate balance of comedy and pathos and real characters in ''Quartermain's Terms'' have earned it a ticket on the train down to New York, where it will open Feb. 17th at Playhouse 91, a brand new Upper East Side theater that this production will inaugurate.

''Quartermain's Terms'' gives the feeling of reading a short book by Evelyn Waugh on a park lawn in the afternoon sun; no more, no less. But it is such a finely crafted little piece that New York audiences are likely to take a quick and lasting shine to it.

A deft, corner-of-the-world comedy about an English-language school for foreigners in Cambridge, England, the play revolves around the lost, befuddled teacher Quartermain. It spins an artful tale of down-at-the-heel instructors who haven't risen much above the station of clerks in life, but still live on dreams of private glory.

Somehow, by the time the play has finished, Gray has shown us the human condition in miniature, sans heroics, sans rhetoric. Here, the small incidents that grind away at our characters become boulder-size problems and issues; they assume the proportion they often seem to have for people.

Director Kenneth Frankel has been wise enough to mount a production that is as nonchalant as it is translucently human. Each of the characters - beginning with the perpetually befuddled Mr. Quartermain, who cannot remember his pupils' names and sometimes isn't too sure of his own - comes gradually and effortlessly into focus.

Thanks in large measure to a cast that is both professional and competent, the discovery of these characters is about as nifty as finding out the bizarre idiosyncracies of a maiden great-aunt who always haunted the dim recesses of youthful memory.

The most demanding role is that of Quartermain, who must spend the entire evening in a self-enveloping fog, muttering a string of well-meaning but empty phrases. Since this character is the somewhat nebulous nucleus of this largely formless work, the role has to have both gravity and lightness. Remak Ramsey delivers the lightness without much of the gravity, and this flaw, though not fatal, shows after a while.

The rest of the cast, especially Dana Ivey as Melanie Garth, is gifted and nimble.

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