Broadway dramas explore truth, survival

Patrick Stewart, Olympia Dukakis light up marquees

Not so long ago, theater fans were mourning the demise of drama on the Great White Way, which only proves how much the theater and stock market have in common in terms of unpredictability.

Nearly a dozen plays are running with playwrights like Arthur Miller and Eugene O'Neill lighting the marquees, plus several new plays that seem certain to tour and be produced by regional theaters as well. The current batch includes two new plays that had their debuts in London, "Copenhagen" and "Rose"; a recent work by Miller, "The Ride Down Mt. Morgan"; and a revival of O'Neill's "A Moon for the Misbegotten."

Copenhagen, at the Royale Theatre, is a metaphysical consideration of a meeting that has been a mystery since 1941 when the physicist Werner Heisenberg flew to Denmark from Nazi Germany to visit his mentor and former teacher, Niels Bohr, winner of the Nobel Prize in 1922. Both men were involved with the theoretical discoveries that led to the atomic bomb, but Heisenberg was working for Hitler, and Bohr's homeland had been invaded by the German Army.

No one knows what they said to each other at that visit, even though they survived the war and met again.

Playwright Michael Frayn has imagined an elegantly literate, multifaceted encounter, viewed from three different pairs of eyes: those of Heisenberg, Bohr, and Bohr's wife, Margrethe. The requisite facts about the nature of atoms are so clearly explained that even a clueless theater buff like this one could follow the implications.

At the end, however, the play is about the nature of truth, and the impact of human relationships on even the most scientific of discourses. Director Michael Blakemore has stripped down the action to a bare, circular stage, holding only three chairs, with viewers seated above the acting area as if they were witnessing a gladiatorial combat.

The dialogue is tautly uttered by Philip Bosco as Bohr, Blair Brown as Margrethe, and particularly by Michael Cumpsty as Heisenberg, but emotions slip in to scramble their motives.

Whether Heisenberg came to Denmark to find out what the Americans were doing or to hint that he would derail the German atomic effort is put through Frayn's prism of possibilities.

Another look at World War II, Martin Sherman's one-woman play Rose, at the Lyceum Theatre is turned into biography that stands as a metaphor for the tumultuous events of the 20th century. Under the direction of Nancy Meckler, "Rose" becomes an acting tour-de-force by Olympia Dukakis, a Greek-American who takes on the role of a Jewish survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto. Ms. Dukakis never moves from a wooden bench for two hours and 15 minutes (except for intermission), not even standing until the curtain call.

Her character Rose speaks with the voice of an 80-year-old woman who has retained her dignity and sense of humor, despite the odyssey that brought her from the shtetl in the Ukraine, where she was born, to the sewers of Warsaw, and to the displaced persons camp where she was chosen to sail to Palestine on the ill-fated ship "Exodus." She later emigrated to America as the wife of an American volunteer she met in the camps.

Sherman's fictional depiction of history is not new, but it bears retelling, especially when the definitive events are personified in the face, body language, and gestures of an actress as skilled as Dukakis.

The Ride Down Mt. Morgan, playing at the Ambassador Theatre, would seem to be a fairy tale about a "Cinderfella" who had managed to marry both Princess Charming and the girl-next-door - if the nation hadn't been racked by the impeachment scandal this past year.

It's hard to avoid thinking of the White House while watching Lyman Felt (Patrick Stewart), who keeps two wives and families separate and unknowing of each other's existence for 10 years.

Felt is more of a scoundrel because the shame and guilt he professes to feel - when the ruse is discovered by his wives - are a sham. His only regret is that his idyll is ending, and he shows little concern for the women he deceived.

Stewart plays Lyman as a mythic figure, with an energy and sensual exuberance that suggests the ancient Greek god of revelry, Dionysus. He is by far the most exciting figure on stage in a play that offers little for the women playing the roles of his wives other than clichs. Although director David Esbjornson moves the cast adroitly through dream sequences that alternate with reality, the two forms never quite mesh.

The chance for the actors to shine as brightly as the moon that lights the strange love scene dominating Act II has made O'Neill's A Moon for the Misbegotten a play to be revived in every generation. At the Walter Kerr Theatre, it features Cherry Jones as Josie, the farm girl with a heart as large as her physique and film star Gabriel Byrne as her alcoholic dreamboat with the life burnt out of him by guilt. Both Jones and Byrne are splendid in their roles, but Roy Dotrice as her scheming old dad pulls the play out from under them whenever he makes an appearance.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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