`The Knife': solemn artifice, musically conveyed

The Knife Musical play by Nick Bic^at (music), David Hare (book), and Tim Rose Price (lyrics). Directed by Mr. Hare. Everyone's out of step but Peter, the transsexual protagonist of ``The Knife,'' at the Public/Newman Theater. With solemn artifice, playwright-director David Hare, composer Nick Bic^at, and lyricist Tim Rose Price chronicle Peter's (Mandy Patinkin) transformation from troubled family man to matronly female. With a text that is entirely sung, the collaborators probe the traumatic effects of the sex-change operation on all concerned. The central scene of the action is present-day Winchester, England.

Those most directly affected are Peter's wife, Angela (Cass Morgan), the children he deserts, and Jenny (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), the mistakenly smitten airline flight attendant who befriends him. In contrast to their solicitude and deference towards Peter, the authors take a generally dim view of the males involved in their elaborate, symbolically titled extravaganza. Is ``The Knife'' intended merely as the sympathetic account of one case history, or is it special pleading?

Thanks to the subtle performance by Mr. Patinkin and the emotionally touching portrayal by Miss Mastrantonio - both in fine singing form - ``The Knife'' manages to hold the spectator's attention most of the way. Composer Bic^at has provided a melodically varied accompaniment for lyricist Rice's assortment of arias, duets, and ensembles. Musical director Michael Starobin makes the most of the score (orchestrated by Chris Walker).

Mr. Hare has staged an appropriately fluid performance; though, for some reason, these English characters all speak with American accents.

Graciela Daniele devised the incidental choreography. The production has been artfully designed by Hayden Griffin (scenery), Tharon Musser (lighting), and Jane Greenwood (costumes).

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