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Born Again

A pulsingly erotic revival of Private Lives bests a scattershot Into the Woods and Arthur Miller's first Broadway play.

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A Talent to Amuse: Lindsay Duncan and Alan Rickman in Noël Coward's Private Lives.  

If you have sat through as many Private Lives as I -- and, most likely, you have -- the question "Why that again?" might legitimately arise. But be advised; Howard Davies's staging, with this cast and these trappings, will have you watching a different play: hardly the same, but just as delicious.

There have been some great Amandas, but never anything like that of Lindsay Duncan. For starters, she is so damnably attractive that not leaping onstage requires serious self-restraint. But then, consider her miracles of timing, wonders of inflection, inexhaustible varieties of expression. Also a range of movements from slinky pussycat to stalking panther; sudden changes of voice from seductive purr to skewering hiss; and an array of silences from pregnant pause to coquettish sulk. Note further a repertoire of sinuous body twists, suggestive lip curls, and a gaze that can puncture frontally, sideswipe smilingly, or reverse inward into enigmatic reverie. I have always avoided the phrase "to die for"; for this performance, I can no more resist it than I can the woman herself.

Elyot is usually played with Noël Coward's own silkily acid understatement. Alan Rickman, with a long repertoire of villains behind him, plays the sophisticated bon vivant with a smooth façade, under which there lurks a tragicomic clown with raw nerves and rough edges, straining to convert sarcasm into socially acceptable irony. This is not a slippery, world-weary cynic but a self-muzzled attack dog, a barely catnapping volcano. And all the more sexually challenging to the right woman -- or the wrong one.

And who could be more devastatingly wrong than Emma Fielding's superb Sibyl, not the usual dithering ingenue but a flaunter of maidenly ingenuousness, a truculent wielder of ravenous innocence? Only the Victor of Adam Godley is ordinary (except for his ears), but manages to make ordinariness jaggedly droll. As a labor-shirking -- or is it xenophobic? -- French maid, Alex Belcourt contributes a saucy vignette.

Davies has slowed down the Coward tempo from volatile volubility to fragmented fury and Pinteresquely creeping deviousness. That makes the second act drag a bit, but lends biting novelty to the other two. Caparisoned in Tim Hatley's stylishly sly scenery, Jenny Beavan's sassy costumes, and Peter Mumford's mercurial lighting, this Private Lives is a public benefaction: two hours that can irradiate a lifetime. I only wish Rickman would not throw away the line about whose yacht is anchored just offstage.

Into the Woods is the work not of the great Sondheim A but of his less dazzling clone, Sondheim B. The idea of the librettist James Lapine to interweave a number of fairy tales, mostly whirling through a Grimm-brothers' forest, has its piquancy. But the strenuous effort to be adultly blasé when not doggedly campy is rather less appetizing.

Fairy tales fascinate with a lurking undercurrent of terror; here we get a deluge of smirking camp. This could have been mitigated by a Sondheim A score; but only three songs -- "Agony," "No One Is Alone," and "Children Will Listen" -- stand out from a steady arioso dreaming of becoming an aria. Even Lapine's staging, good in the 1987 premiere, collapses under the compulsion not to repeat itself. Douglas W. Schmidt's décor is lavishly inventive, Susan Hilferty's savvy costumes climax in a superlative cow, marvelously enacted by Chad Kimball. Brian MacDevitt's lighting brilliantly juggles the chiaro and the oscuro, but what with scenery gliding more noticeably than people, John Carrafa's choreography seems confined to the trees.

The cast falls well short of the original production's. Only Laura Benanti's Cinderella compels, with Adam Wylie's Jack an intermittent success. Such stalwarts as John McMartin, Marylouise Burke, and Gregg Edelman are a trifle too sweaty under the collar; the beautiful and fine-voiced Vanessa Williams cannot act the Witch; the able Pamela Myers and Amanda Naughton get lost in the shuffle; Stephen DeRosa's Baker malfunctions; and Molly Ephraim's Red Ridinghood and Trent Armand Kendall's Steward are simply inept. The main innovation is having not one but two unleashed Wolves; yet as the proverb almost has it, one wolf in hand is better than two in the woods.

An instant flop when it opened in 1944, Arthur Miller's first Broadway play, The Man Who Had All the Luck, concerns a young man who, surrounded by the failures of family and friends, has everything, however improbably, go his way. He suffers from both guilt and the fear of calamity he believes must inevitably befall him, too. There is a direct line from this play to Death of a Salesman, which only emphasizes Miller's fate: always wanting to write tragedy, and never getting beyond melodrama. In real life, the man on whom the play is based, as Miller relates, "hung sic himself." In the play . . . oh, well, I must keep mum.

The efficient production is well directed by Scott Ellis, with Chris O'Donnell, Samantha Mathis, and Sam Robards strongly leading an able cast. Miller subtitles his play A Fable. What with glaringly obvious authorial string-pulling, Feeble would be nearer the mark. There is, however, a perfectly preserved vintage Marmon, looking spanking new, occupying center stage during one scene. Said to be the only surviving specimen, it is by itself worth an entire auto show, if not, regrettably, stage show.

Simon Callow is as glorious a ham as they come. The worthy Peter Ackroyd has severely condensed his ample book on Dickens for him, and set Callow loose on two hours of biography, commentary, and reenactments of rowdy scenes from the novels such as Dickens did in his public readings. As Dickens, The Mystery of Charles Dickens is small potatoes; but as the mastery of Simon Callow in brazen clowning punctuated by conspiratorial murmurs, it is quite a spectacle. Patrick Garland's staging shrewdly alternates bustling kinesis with regal stasis, and Christopher Woods's whimsical, slightly disorienting stage design adds a fillip to the proceedings. But I suspect that Emlyn Williams's long-ago straightforward impersonation of a Dickens reading did more for both Dickens and the audience.

Private Lives
Revival of the Noël Coward play, staged by Howard Davies; starring Lindsay Duncan and Alan Rickman.
Into the Woods
Revival of the musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, staged by Lapine.


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