Even in an unexceptional season like the current one, Broadway and Off Broadway shows offer range and vitality. Here is a sampling of recent arrivals as covered by the Monitor's New York theater reviewer. SHADOWLANDS Play by William Nicholson. Directed by Elijah Moshinsky. Starring Nigel Hawthorne, Jane Alexander. At the Brooks Atkinson Theatre.
SHADOWLANDS'' is a deeply compassionate and moving love story. It is also comic, philosophic, and thought provoking. William Nicholson's dramatization of the relationship between an Oxbridge don and what one character calls a ``Jewish-Communist-Christian-American'' gives a lift to the heart and a whole new dimension to the current season.
Mr. Nicholson's script, a successful London stage version of his earlier television drama, opens with C.S. (Jack) Lewis, played by Nigel Hawthorne, giving what could be one of his typical lectures. In the course of it, he touches on such matters as love, kindness, and pain (``God's megaphone to wake us''). Mr. Hawthorne's Jack presents the very model of a self-assured British academic. But when it comes to women, Jack is not self-assured. Quite the contrary.
Into his bachelor life comes Joy Davidman (played by Jane Alexander), an American fan Jack has come to know through their correspondence. Unhappily married (she will ultimately obtain her divorce), Joy has come to England with her young son. Diffident but kindly Jack gives Joy a temporary home. Later, when she decides to live in England, Jack marries Joy to provide her with resident status. But this is strictly a marriage of convenience. Meanwhile, a deeper tie is forming.
Hawthorne, known to American TV viewers for his appearances on ``Yes [Prime] Minister'' and other series, relishes the banter of the high table and plays the intellectual's game with professorial zest.
Joy is the ultimate outsider in the closed circle. When one of them condescendingly observes that women have no souls, Joy retorts: ``I need a little guidance here: Are you being offensive or merely stupid?'' Miss Alexander's delivery of the line received one of the biggest laughs that night.
With Joy's illness - and the doctor's dire prognosis - comes Jack's realization of how much he loves this spiky American. With the skill of a comedian, Hawthorne handles Jack's rationalization of his decision to wed a divorcee.
``Shadowlands'' ends sadly. But because of the depth of love that has been expressed and shared, it is not a depressing play. Much of this is due to Nicholson's wit and style as a dramatist. The production is directed with great skill by Elijah Moshinsky. FIDDLER ON THE ROOF
Musical with book by Joseph Stein, music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, based on Sholem Aleichem stories. Jerome Robbins direction reproduced by Ruth Mitchell, Robbins choreography reproduced by Sammy Dallas Bayes. Starring Topol. At the Gershwin Theatre.
WHAT a pleasure it is to welcome back Tevye, the philosophical dairyman, his tart-tongued wife Golde, their independent-minded daughters, and the enduring Anatevkans who inhabit a vanished Sholem Aleichem world in ``Fiddler on the Roof.''
The folk of the Stein-Harnick-Bock musical adaptation have lost none of their endearing liveliness since their Broadway debut in 1964. If anything, their happy-sad history from the days of czarist Russia has grown mellower over the years.
Billed as the 25th-anniversary production, this revival stars Israel's Topol, who is no stranger to Tevye or to a widespread audience beyond his nation's borders. The personable, solidly built actor-singer moves through the role with affectionate familiarity and stage-commanding authority. From the moment he barks out ``Tradition,'' we know that Tevye isn't going to abandon the ways of his fathers without a struggle.
The tale is woven together in the Bock-Harnick tunes and in the Jerome Robbins dances faithfully reproduced here by Sammy Dallas Bayes in what amounts to a tribute to a Broadway classic. The vocal performances are generally of a high order. As for the succession of wonderful dance numbers, one could scarcely ask more of the verve with which they have been animated at the Gershwin.
KING LEAR Tragedy by William Shakespeare. Directed by Gerald Freedman. Starring Hal Holbrook. At the Roundabout Theatre through Dec. 9.
THE Roundabout Theatre Company's 25th-season opener is a stalwart production of ``King Lear,'' starring Hal Holbrook, whose performance grows in depth, poignancy, and bitter irony throughout the evening. The delicate pathos of the final scenes replaces the bluster with which Lear misreads his three daughters' expressions of filial love and divests himself of his kingdom.
An actor of power and presence, Holbrook easily dominates the stage and the revival. Director Freedman has populated this Great Lakes Theater Festival production with a company which, at its best, complements Holbook, particularly in the cases of Ron Randell's steadfast Gloucester and John Woodson's bluntly honest Kent.
The drama opens on what appears to be an almost bare stage. As the action moves from scene to scene, Freedman and designer John Ezell create an impressionistic succession of craggy settings. If the effects seem at times too theatrically gimmicky and extravagant, they at least underscore Freedman's aim of creating an atmosphere of mythical antiquity.
Within the conceptual context, the human dimensions seem at times subordinated to directorial flourishes. Yet the exposition is preserved throughout the unfolding tragedy of the consequences of misperception and self-deception.
The opening scene sets the pattern as the duplicitous Goneril (Suzy Hunt) and Regan (Margery Murray) practice their ``glib and oily art'' with honeyed declarations of love, while Cordelia (Gloria Biegler) infuriates Lear with her candid avowal of affection.
Lear's rage meets its match in the storm the rejected old tyrant soon encounters. In challenging the fury and cruelty of the elements, Holbrook rises to the rhetorical heights of the role. But it is later on, as Lear's faculties begin unraveling, that the actor reaches deep into the overwhelming sadness of the ancient's rueful awakening. ONCE ON THIS ISLAND Musical with book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, music by Stephen Flaherty. Based on the novel ``My Love, My Love,'' by Rosa Guy. Directed and choreographed by Graciela Daniele. At the Booth Theatre.
`ONCE on This Island,'' seen in its Off Broadway premi`ere, is a lovely, lilting, frequently rollicking mixture of folk fable and pop lyricism. Located vaguely on an island in the French Antilles, it weaves a romance around mortals and supernatural beings. With a kind of naive sophistication, elements of musical and story theater combine to celebrate a way of life.
Lynn Ahrens, who wrote the book and lyrics, and composer Stephen Flaherty have found a rich source in ``My Love, My Love,'' by Trinidadian novelist Rosa Guy. Their uninterrupted flow of words, music, and movement tells how Ti Moune (La Chanze), a black peasant girl from a mountain village, saves the life of lighter-skinned patrician Daniel (Jerry Dixon) after his near-fatal car crash. Through selfless courage and determination, Ti Moune reaches the city where Daniel lives. She even manages to penetrate the high fence that surrounds his mansion. Although he responds to her ministrations and love, Daniel's gratitude doesn't extend to the point of breaking off his arranged marriage. While the affair ends tragically for the village girl, her neighbors are able to celebrate Ti Moune's memory.
As imaginatively directed by Graciela Daniele, ``Once on This Island'' is a delightful blend of elements. The strong-voiced singer-dancers of the ensemble play assorted roles and mime everything from flora and fauna to that forbidding fence. choBesides the attractive leads, the versatile cast of principals includes Andrea Frierson, Sheila Gibbs, Kecia Lewis-Evans, Afi McClendon (as Little Ti Moune), Milton Craig Nealy, Nikki Rene, Eric Riley, and Ellis E. Williams.
Loy Arcenas's primitive-style painted setting, Judy Dearing's costumes for peasants and high society, and Allen Lee Hughes's lighting (come storm or sunshine), all contribute to the enjoyments of ``Once on This Island.'' So do the musical accompaniments of the quintet led by keyboardist-conductyor Steve Marzullo, performing a score that employs Haitian and Brazilian rhythms plus what Mr. Flaherty calls ``a tad of gospel.''end cho Taken all in all, the Booth Theatre excursion that started out at Playwrights Horizons is a Caribbean cruise of uncommon pleasures.