St. Mark's Gospel Solo recital by Alec McCowen. At Lamb's Theatre through April 15. Clarity, conviction, narrative thrust, and a vivid immediacy are still the keynotes of his performance, as a bearded Alec McCowen returns to New York with ``St. Mark's Gospel,'' last seen here in 1981. The performance reflects Mr. McCowen's approach to the material as an acting piece. In a Lamb's Theatre Playbill column entitled ``Personal Mark,'' the veteran British star explains: ``I have always wanted to be an entertainer rather than an actor, and idolized the great performers who can hold an audience on their own.'' He mentions such entertainers as Jack Benny, Max Miller, and Danny Kaye as well as singers Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, and Lena Horne.
``Well, regretfully, I cannot sing or dance,'' notes McCowen. ``But at least I can speak.''
It is as a speaking performer that McCowen delivers the King James Version of the shortest of the four Gospels. The actor's introduction - explanatory and amusing - is as informal as his attire: open-necked shirt, maroon sweater, and dark slacks. Once he is launched into his text, the precise and intelligible speaking of the words becomes all important. The effect, through the magic of the performer's art, is to grasp the listener and rivet his attention.
McCowen's Mark is a restless narrator, pacing the small stage as the action unfolds. His movements serve to visualize Jesus' travels as an itinerant preacher and healer. Admonishing and instructing his disciples, striving to reach the people with his message, Jesus nevertheless yearns for a privacy his growing celebrity status makes increasingly difficult. McCowen works on a stage sparsely furnished with a plain table and three chairs. When Jesus routs the money changers from the temple, McCowen angrily flings the chairs to the back of the stage.
In whatever its changing moods, the intensity of the narrative never flags. Whether Jesus is performing cures, preaching his new gospel, or attempting to explain to his dull disciples such miracles as the loaves and fishes, McCowen fulfills his office as performer-reporter. He also finds ironic humor in certain passages and observations. The tragedy of the Lord's betrayal and crucifixion yield to the miracle of the resurrection, punctuated by McCowen's powerfully affirming ``Amen!''
In the Playbill excerpt from his book, ``Double Bill,'' McCowen remembers his experiences during the 16 months it took him to memorize Mark:
``At first, ... I was depressed by the continual repetition of `He said unto them' or ``He answered and said unto them' or `And Jesus answering said unto them,' until I realized that there was a pattern to the choice of these phrases; and that Mark used the first phrase in an ordinary exchange, the second phrase if Jesus was making a particular point, and the last phrase is usually spoken when Jesus completely routs his questioners. Then, later, I discovered a further reason to love the constant repetition of these prosaic phrases, and to gather enormous energy from them.''
The energy, not the prosaicness, is what inspires and invigorates the performance of ``St. Mark's Gospel.''
McCowen will give his solo recital in Princeton, N.J., on April 9. After the New York engagement ends on April 15, he is scheduled for appearances in Cincinnati, Seattle, and Minneapolis.