Plays, museum shows dazzle in London

Satire that still sparks after 225 years, Harold Pinter plays old and new, and a brisk Stephen Sondheim revival are among the shows lighting up the London theater scene during these dark winter nights.

But daytime in London is far from dull, too: The city's museums boast massive Oscar Wilde, William Blake, and J.M.W. Turner exhibitions.

The Royal Shakespeare Company gives The Rivals rapid, precise pacing and enunciation. Richard Brinsley Sheridan's 18th-century spoof of social pretension and high-minded money grubbing is a triumph of ensemble acting.

Benjamin Whitrow, best known in the US from the 1995 BBC/PBS television version of "Pride and Prejudice," delivers proper bombast as Sir Anthony Absolute, who insists his wayward son marry the girl he dictates - even if the young man adores her.

Emily Raymond swoons appropriately as Lydia Languish, spicing up romance by writing anonymous notes to herself and lamenting her inability to abandon riches for poverty.

Robert Portal, seen in the film "Mrs. Dalloway," bumbles amusingly as her unsuccessful, rustic swain.

Wendy Craig shines as Mrs. Malaprop, the interfering aunt impaled on her own wordiness. Ms. Craig's hauteur as she mystifies other characters while delighting audiences would - as Mrs. M. might put it - be a travesty to miss. Americans who do, however, can still see her in the RSC's continuing Shakespearian cycle of "Henry VI" Parts One, Two and Three, and "Richard III" at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, March 10-18.

Forty years ago, London and Broadway audiences were captivated by Pinter's The Caretaker. Donald Pleasence, as the tramp constantly planning to get his identity papers, and Alan Bates, as his sardonic, tough brother who teases him, memorably created the lead roles that vivified the elliptic tragi-comedy about three dreamers trapped in a junk-filled room.

In this crisp revival, Michael Gambon (in the film "The Insider" and TV's "Inspector Maigret" and "The Singing Detective") blusters where Sir Donald whined. He makes snarling, not sniveling, effective as the tramp and two troubled brothers circle one another in a dance of illusion and noncommunication. Rupert Graves, whose film appearances include "A Room with a View" and "A Handful of Dust," could have been more menacing in the malevolent Bates part, but co-star Douglas Hodge mesmerizes as he delivers a monologue about a botched medical procedure that has numbed his emotions.

In 1972, 13 years after he had written "The Caretaker," Pinter attempted to adapt Marcel Proust's epic Remembrance of Things Past into a screenplay. The playwright has called that year his most creative ever, even though financial problems prevented production of the film. The script was shelved. Then, 20 years later, director Di Trevis came across his treatment, the upshot of which is a collaboration with Pinter now playing at the Royal National Theatre. It's a riveting pastiche of Proustian dreams and decadence.

This challenging and compelling three-hour production provides a satisfying taste of Proust's 3,000-page tome. Directed with choreographic sweep by Ms. Trevis, the stage is dominated by Duncan Bell, as the author's indecisive alter ego Charles Swann, and Indira Varma, as the el Albertine who adores and deceives him. Rounding out the cast are British repertory veterans Jill Johnson, Julie Legrand, John Burgess, and John Bett, all of whom excel in multiple roles as aristocrats, wastrels, and social climbers.

(The National should, as does Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia, provide a 'who's who' chart of the dozens of characters. Keeping track of them all is also easier after viewing Paul Ruiz's beautiful 1999 film, "Time Regained," starring John Malkovich and Catherine Deneuve.)

Experience filtered through memory also forms the motif of Madame Melville, Richard Nelson's slightly flawed but rewarding study of a 15-year-old American student who is seduced by his charismatic, neurotic French teacher.

Irene Jacob, a magnetic film presence in "The Double Life of Veronique" and "Red," fascinates as the cultured but desperate older woman. Macaulay Culkin is merely adequate as the smitten sophomore.

Although the star of the "Home Alone" films gets top billing, his thin stage presence underscores Nelson's failure to let the audience know how the seduction affects the boy's adult life. Culkin's own callowness makes us wonder why a woman so sophisticated - no matter how lonely - could be attracted to him.

Madeleine Potter, a Broadway and Off-Broadway veteran soon to be seen in the Merchant-Ivory film of "The Golden Bowl," excels in the complex role of the teacher's friend. Both women are deftly characterized as too brilliant for their own happiness; their literary, artistic, and musical talents simply frustrate them as they plod through routine jobs.

Stephen Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along lasted only two weeks on Broadway 20 years ago. Now, one of London's most innovative theater companies, Donmar Warehouse, gives it a spirited revival in an intimate setting.

Ten years earlier, in "Follies," Sondheim effectively took characters back in time to underscore how years can tarnish ideals. Here, the once-starving, now cynical artists are too one-dimensional to arouse much interest in their compromises.

Still, this "Merrily" rolls amusingly along in revue fashion.

The songs "Old Friends" and "Not a Day Goes By" are - in the mercenary producer character's own words - "hummable." "Bobby, Jackie and Jack" is a sprightly spoof of 1960s Kennedymania. And a perky young cast headed by Julian Ovenden as the increasingly crass composer, Daniel Evans as his clear-headed lyricist, and Shona White as their waspish writer friend, romp through the piece.

All this energy, and the chance to see how Sondheim has developed, make "Merrily" eminently watchable. As last year's Off-Broadway production of his first and never previously staged show "Saturday Night" proved, anything by Sondheim, the contemporary musical theater's most gifted and innovative composer, is well worth seeing.

* * *

Special offerings 1at London's museums include a rich British Library exhibit on Oscar Wilde. It encompasses everything from the 8-year-old aesthete's critique of a blue shirt to the notorious challenge that triggered the comic genius's sordid downfall. Just-uncovered items include a touching letter from Wilde to his devoted, long-suffering wife. Recordings of his son's reminiscences and excerpts from the splendid production of "The Importance of Being Earnest" starring John Gielgud and Edith Evans round out the display.

The biggest event ever at the Tate Britain - a 500-work exhibit on the literary and artistic revolutionary William Blake - is the largest yet mounted to honor the man who blended art and poetry with new engraving techniques. It underscores Blake's steadfastness in an age of repression, his links with radicals such as Thomas Paine, and his fascination with post-revolutionary America and France. "The Tyger" manuscript, Blake's "re-composition" of Dante's "Inferno," and 100 plates of the long poem "Jerusalem" highlight this exhaustive show.

The protean J.M.W. Turner - whom some consider Britain's greatest landscape painter - is honored by a Royal Academy display of 100 of his watercolors. Many of these were intended for exhibition or as the basis for engravings; they range through a 60-year career launched when he exhibited at the Royal Academy at age 15. Such works as the 1804 "Fall of the Reichenbach" prove Turner's claim that he could make watercolors as rich in tones as oils.

It is also worth braving the crowds to see the British Museum's much-heralded renovations. The famous round Reading Room, used by everyone from Charles Dickens to Virginia Woolf, has reopened, while the Great Court, Europe's largest covered plaza, features a spectacular soaring roof.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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