Dench's 'Amy' is worth the view

For theater fans who measure their lives by the great performances they've seen, the arrival of Dame Judi Dench on Broadway is a notable occasion.

Dame Judi is known to Americans for her work in films, including her Oscar-winning portrayal of Queen Elizabeth I in 1998's "Shakespeare in Love" and earlier as the feisty Queen Victoria in "Mrs. Brown." But in Britain, she is one of the most admired leading ladies of the stage.

In David Hare's play Amy's View, at New York's Ethel Barrymore Theater until mid-July, Ms. Dench takes over the stage, the focus, and the adoration of the audience. The play's world premire run at the Royal National Theatre in 1997 was sold out, as was its engagement in London's West End last winter.

Two members of the New York cast received Tony Award nominations Monday: Dench for best performance by a leading actress in a play and Samantha Bond for best performance by a featured actress in a play.

The evening is worth the scalper's prices some people are paying to see Dench's performance. Even if Mr. Hare's drama is a puzzlement, its does provide a showcase for Dench's portrait of an aging theatrical diva.

The play is set at the country house outside London where Esme Allen (Dench) rules over an idyllic miniature kingdom. The action begins when she arrives home one night to find her daughter, Amy (Ms. Bond), waiting to introduce her soon-to-be husband, Dominic Tyghe.

He's an anti-elitist, angry young man who rejects theater but loves television. Esme detests him, both for his willingness to discard tradition - not to mention the theater - and for warning signs she sees in his treatment of her daughter.

Esme is imperious in demanding her way, in life as in the theater. While the title suggests that Esme's personality is one grand performance, her daughter, Amy - in a strong portrayal by Bond - is not fooled into following her mother's wishes.

As the action progresses over 16 years, Amy and Dominic marry, have two children, and then separate when he takes up with a young Swedish actress. At the end, Esme is stripped bare of all she held dear.

In a variation on Tennessee Williams's heroine Blanche DuBois, who relies on the "kindness of strangers" for emotional sustenance, Esme retreats from harsh reality into the theater, where she finds comfort.

Hare juggles a multitude of themes thick and fast: the argument for live theater vs. the electronic media; the relationship between a mother and a daughter; and the irrelevance of Britain's old guard and its views.

But details such as motivation or exposition to explain the changing circumstances are left unexplained. The effect of Hare's playwriting technique is a general unruliness, defying the audience to sort out what's going on.

No matter. Dench keeps the mercurial moods of her master-of-make-believe in perpetual motion, even when she is quietly sitting in a chair. Nothing with Dench's portrayal is ever quite still, neither her hands nor her burning eyes, which allows her to invest even the arranging of a bouquet of flowers with layers of complexity as the simple task suggests much more.

Another import from across the Atlantic, The Lonesome West, recently opened at the Lyceum Theater and has received a Tony nomination for best new play.

Martin McDonagh, who wrote last season's hit "The Beauty Queen of Leenane," gives an even more brutal view of family life here, exposing in raw language and murderous actions the tensions between siblings growing up in a house filled with hatred.

Despite some expert acting by a quartet of Irish actors - Dawn Bradfield, David Ganley, Brian F. O'Byrne, and Maeliosa Stafford - as the Connor brothers, and the grim humor of their Act II encounter, the bleakness is depressing. One wonders if Broadway audiences will be willing to accept the absence of hope as a condition for an evening's outing.

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