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Six Plays in Search of a Tony

Janney, at least, offers relief from all this relentless entertainment: Her characteristic dryness helps tone the mania down, and she gets a showstopper costume for her big number, a trim white tux that makes her legs look longer than an eight-day workweek. Mostly, though, watching 9 to 5 is drudgery. Having fun shouldn’t be so exhausting. –S.Z.

Desire Under the Elms
We begin with a vision of what used to be called “the ownership society”: A darkened house in midair—not floating, but hanging, precariously, by groaning ropes. Beneath this deadly pile, which is raised and lowered but goes mostly uninhabited throughout Desire Under the Elms, there’s just bleak waste, nothing like the “purdy” farm everyone fights about. It’s the one joke director Robert Falls allows here, and O’Neill would approve: After all, he invites us to chuckle at brutal, ancient Ephraim Cabot (Brian Dennehy), who denies his aggrieved son Eben (Pablo Schreiber) his inheritance, his dignity, and, ultimately, his manhood. The old man weds a voluptuous grasper named Abbie (Carla Gugino), intending to create an alternate heir; Eben and Abbie meet, clash, spark. Tragedy, with lusty overtones, ensues, and you’re somehow tempted to laugh. In my audience, one person did.

And why not? With its portentous dimensions and almost comically priapic atmosphere of dread, Desire cries out for either unself-conscious energy or ironic, Wooster-style dismemberment. Falls delivers something in between: a soft-core meditation on Want that pinches off the energy. Thus gelded, Dennehy and Schreiber both come off weak, restrained, a little strangled in speech and affect. (A uniform approach to New England dialect might’ve helped.) But this is Abbie’s show, and Gugino, an underrated actress in full possession of her considerable gifts (just listen to her form the word “mine”), bestrides it like a goddess. She’s got the strength to give herself over to her desires, come hell, high water, or even “inappropriate” laughter. –S.B.

Mary Stuart
When a highbrow classic gets revived, the ads almost always offer “seduction,” “greed,” or “deception,” to assure audiences that they’re not going to have to eat their spinach. Bad behavior and power struggles are always in style, and the face-off between Mary, Queen of Scots, and her cousin Queen Elizabeth I, is just as compelling now as it was in 1800, when Friedrich Schiller first adapted it for the stage. But the one thing Phyllida Lloyd (who’s brought her acclaimed London production Stateside) hasn’t coaxed from Mary Stuart stands out in stark relief: the passionate messiness of raw feeling. These lionesses see their strengths reflected in each other and hate it; their admiration plays out as they claw, coolly, at each other’s throats.

Harriet Walter (as Elizabeth) and Janet McTeer (as Mary) have to pick their way through a wilderness of metaphors and tropes. The two queens wear period dress; the men around them wear contemporary suits, making the obvious point that men still rule. As Lloyd strives for relevance, the whole thing takes on the tenor of a policy debate, and all the gray suits don’t help

Walter’s Elizabeth is plenty regal, but she’s a cartoon, mannered and imperious, demanding our respect instead of earning it. McTeer’s Mary is lustier and more vital, which at least gives Mary Stuart flashes of life, but not enough. This is a classy enterprise, dressed in the right clothes, working the gray matter—so rigorously that you could almost miss that it’s dead from the neck down. –S.Z.