London Sports a Passion for American Plays

The two centers of English-speaking theater indulge in a little envy over each other's accomplishments

THE British are at it again. Bashing, that is. It wasn't enough to douse the royal family in tub water all last year. Now we have to listen to the silly dirges over the pitiful state of theater in the United Kingdom. Give me a break.

True, Olivier is dead and Gielgud is 90. But even the more recent loss of Peggy Ashcroft and the beloved Ralph Richardson still leaves the English talent pool filled to overflowing. Consider (to name a few): Paul Scofield, Alec Guinness, Vanessa Redgrave, Wendy Hiller, Derek Jacobi, Kenneth Branagh. As for writers, I grant there's only one Coward, one Pinter. But in recent years the Brits can and should boast of having nurtured: Alan Bennett (whose brilliant ``Madness of George III'' comes to Brooklyn for a brief stay next week), Christopher Hampton (recently preoccupied with the book of ``Sunset Boulevard,'' the latest Andrew Lloyd Webber musical), and Alan Ayckbourn (more on him later).

What meager praise there is points either to the past or across the Atlantic. Oscar Wilde, no less, received major productions of two of his plays in the last year. Following the rapturous reception of Terence Rattigan's 40-year-old play ``The Deep Blue Sea,'' the Royal National Theatre brashly chose to revive J.B. Priestly's even older ``An Inspector Calls,'' which has been given an almost operatic mounting by 30-ish wunderkind Stephen Daltry and has collected a fistful of awards.

Initially mesmerized by Ian MacNeil's surrealistic set and Stephen Warbeck's Hitchcockian (or should I say Bernard Hermann-like) deliberately intrusive score, I must admit I was totally caught up in this passionately acted melodrama that one might call not only prophetic but even occasionally profound. Daltry pulled the play up by its very roots and has it practically spilling over sideways into the audience's lap.

The more astonishing audience response, surely, is the sudden burst of recognition being given to American playwrights. The first half of Tony Kushner's ``Angels in America'' received its first significant accolades at the National Theatre and the second half is due to open soon, almost simultaneously with Broadway.

Tiberlake Wertenbaker, an American living in London, turns out new plays and translations with equal grace and speed; whatever she writes is produced there almost immediately and received with something close to awe. The English are also quick to point out that they recognized the virtues of John Guare's ``Six Degrees of Separation,'' Scott MacPherson's ``Marvin's Room'' and, more recently, Arthur Miller's ``The Last Yankee.'' ``The Destiny of Me'' ``The Piano Lesson,'' ``Three Hotels,'' ``Forever Plaid,'' and ``Sisters Rosensweig'' are on the horizon.

When it comes to musicals, the British seem prepared to surrender altogether. (They prefer to think of the exceptional Andrew Lloyd Webber as an industry rather than an artist.) This is really taking their inferiority complex to an extreme.

``Crazy for You'' (with music by Gershwin) leads the pack, with full houses continuing on top of enthusiastic notices. ``City of Angels'' knocked the critics out equally (if not even more) and has rescinded its premature closing notice.

``Hair'' is just about to take off its clothes again, so to speak, at the Old Vic, where it opens this week. And Stephen Sondheim's ``Sweeney Todd'' is turning away crowds at the National Theatre. Then there's ``Carousel,'' Rodgers and Hammerstein's sentimental but enduring classic produced at the National Theatre 10 months ago that has just reopened in the West End.

While I greatly admired the care and imagination lavished on ``Carousel,'' I thought the best place to get a sense of the new British infatuation with America might well be ``Grease'' and how right I was. Director David Gilmore implicitly understands that this fantasy America comes to us via the movies. Tall reproductions of posters for the films ``Juvenile Jungle'' and ``Speed Crazy'' share the stage with blowups of James Dean, Elvis Presley and, would you believe, Sandra Dee. Arlene Philips's hilarious choreography out-parodies dances that were parodies to begin with. At the matinee I attended, the audience seemed equally divided between happy families and ecstatic teenagers, all mesmerized by this Technicolor fantasy of drive-ins and soda fountains. No wonder it's sold out through Christmas.

When it comes to theater, pure theater, no one does it like the English. That is, when superior writing is matched by uniformly fine acting and direction, as is the case with ``Arcadia,'' the new Tom Stoppard conceit, also at the National Theatre.

Part comedy, part romance, part detective story, part jigsaw puzzle, ``Arcadia'' starts us in the 18th century observing the creation of a large private garden adjoining a country estate. It then jumps forward to the 20th century, as horticultural experts try to reconstruct what must have been done to whom and why. Each subsequent scene takes place in one century or the other. Stoppard mischievously changes time periods at cliff-hanging moments, dropping clues like so many acorns along a path.

Under Trevor Nunn's characteristically immaculate direction, the actors, led by young Rufus Seawell (a future star, if I ever saw one) take their bows with transparent joy. One leaves ``Arcadia'' floating on air but heartsick that a person can live in only one century at a time. (Except in the theater!)

At Stratford-on-Avon, one expects to see Shakespeare superbly done, but in recent years, that has not always been the case. However, since the estimable Adrian Noble has been in charge of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), things have been steadily improving, both at Stratford and at the company's in-town branch, the Barbican Centre.

At Stratford, Noble has unveiled his eagerly awaited and uncut ``King Lear'' in a visual conception of considerable eloquence that almost matches his luminous ``Winter's Tale,'' now playing at the Barbican. Robert Stephens approaches the title role not as an egotistical monster but as an indulged and spoiled monarch. The characterization is valid, and becomes truly gripping into the play's second act. Stephens's gift for poetry is nothing less than awesome; Ian Hughes's fool provides a quicksilver and playful contrast.

Noble shares directing chores at the RSC with both new and experienced talents. One of the boldest and most intelligent is surely Michael Bogdanov, who creates a total mise en scene for his recreation of 18th-century Verona in ``The Venetian Twins,'' a comedy of mistaken identity by Carlo Goldoni. With pace and charm, Bogdanov orchestrates strolling musicians, improvisational business, and lightning-fast changes of costume for the hugely talented David Troughton, who plays the lead double roles. An engaging mix of Dustin Hoffman and Bill Murray (with a little Tom Conti thrown in) Troughton plays everything as if his life depended on it; his energy is irresistible.

Back in London, I found at least a half-dozen other performances that would be the highlight in any season, on either side of the Atlantic. In Joe Dowling's warmly received revival of O'Casey's ``Juno and the Paycock'' an actor named Mark Lambert brings the mercurial character of Joxer Daly to life with such raw, uncompromising honesty that it's amazing he doesn't bring the Boyle household down all by himself; Niall Buggy's Captain Jack Boyle was impressive, too, but I was disappointed with Anita Reeves's Juno, in a part that should have carried the evening.

In a revisionist production of ``Much Ado About Nothing,'' staged by young Matthew Warchus, Mark Rylance takes the braggadocio role of Benedick and turns it inside out to create a lonely, caustic outsider who privately nurses a burning ego hidden in a slender, unprepossessing frame. Fascinating and original.

No season in London is complete without a new Alan Ayckbourn work, and his newest, ``Time of My Life,'' opened during my visit. Ayckbourn plays ingenious but ultimately irritating time games with his three onstage couples (one set of parents, two sons, one wife, one girlfriend) for 2 1/2 hours. While Ayckbourn's direction added no extra visual dimension to the writing, his handling of actors left no nuance unpursued.

As for the pair of leads in ``Sunset Boulevard,'' I admit to being in a minority. For my money, no one sings Webber like Patti Lupone, though I will agree that, at moments, she is almost undone by an unbecoming wig that suggests Norma Desmond has lost all her hair. As for Kevin Anderson's update on William Holden, his singing is of a piece with his acting, namely, first-rate. The show has apparently disappointed many, but not this theatergoer. Trevor Nunn remains a world-class director, and with John Napier sets and Anthony Powell costumes, how wrong can it go? Not very. Is it real? Of course not. It's a period fantasy created by Billy Wilder, and Messrs. Hampton and Lloyd Webber are deeply faithful to it. Personally, I'd like to live inside it indefinitely.

It's with some irony that I report the hottest ticket in town next to ``Sunset Boulevard'' is the Royal Court production of David Mamet's ``Oleanna.'' A two-character play directed by the versatile Harold Pinter (responsible, one hears, for a new, less enigmatic, ending to the text) its appeal only confirms the British appetite for our best and brightest.

I reluctantly missed the chance to see it, but I couldn't help but be quietly pleased by its success.

America does have more to offer than McDonald's and musicals. It's sweet to learn that citizens of the United Kingdom seem keen to find out what else we're cooking up over here in the colonies.

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