New Pinter, Recent Simon, Open in London

Special Features   New Pinter, Recent Simon, Open in London
LONDON NEWS -- November, 1996

LONDON NEWS -- November, 1996

Playbill's London correspondent Sheridan Morley reviews major recent openings:


Something very curious seems to have happened with what I would reckon to be the straight-play event of the London year: the world premiere of Harold Pinter's Ashes to Ashes. In a taut, often almost unbearably tense 60 minutes, we are introduced to just two characters: a woman who has been brutalized and a man who may or may not have been her and her nation's political and sexual torturer.

Traditional Pinter ambiguities are here, as well as the familiar pauses and the half-remembered reference to lost songs or movies; but I believe Ashes to Ashes to be one of his greatest plays and am utterly bemused by how few of my colleagues, with the notable exception of his new biographer Michael Billington, seem to share the view. Sure the play has echoes of Death and the Maiden, but more importantly it gives us back the classic Pinter of Old Times and No Man's Land in what I reckon to have been his golden period.

Indeed, so classic is Ashes to Ashes that a cartoonist would be tempted to call its two characters Pinter and Esque: This is a closet memory piece of immense, haunting power, sexual and political terror, apparently irrelevant information that suddenly becomes all too crystal clear, and above all (another regular Pinter theme) the co-relation between sexual and political thuggery. These are power games, which have been going on long before the play starts and will continue after we leave it an hour later; we are never really going to know whether there has, in fact, been some Nazi takeover of whatever country we are in (the set is all beige, as if to deny that we are anywhere but everywhere), or whether deep in the authorial heartland this is just another advance warning of territorial and sexual imperatives half-fantasized and half-remembered in something a lot less than tranquillity.
In Pinter's own eerily still production, Lindsay Duncan perfectly exists on the borderlines of fact and fantasy, memory and imagination; Stephen Rea has a little more difficulty, his natural Irish charm sometimes oddly ill at ease with the terrors that lie deep in the duologue. It occurs to me that I have not yet told you where this great and greatly disturbing drama is to be found. It is at the Ambassadors, one of the two West End theatres (the other being the Duke of York's), which the Royal Court company are temporarily occupying while the builders are remodeling their usual Sloane Square home. But in a fit of ludicrous megalomania, the Court is actually putting its name up in neon over these historic theatres (I guess we are lucky not to have them renamed the Stephen Daldry One and Two after the current Court manager), thereby causing infinite confusion among tourists and cab drivers, since the theatres will naturally revert to their real names anyway next summer. I intend to go on calling them by their correct and historic names and am amazed that their landlords have allowed this shameful hijack.
The Pulitzer Prize for playwriting has always been thoroughly erratic, but Wendy Wasserstein's The Heidi Chronicles won seven other major playwriting awards back in 1989 including the Tony, and now that we finally have it here the mystery remains utterly unsolved: 1989 must have been an unusually terrible year for other new American plays.

The pattern here is one vastly better achieved by such near-contemporary movies as The Way We Were, Beaches and Rich & Famous take a young woman of the 1960's, follow her through into the 1980's and let's see what happens to her and her nation along the way. Like some nightmarish female Forrest Gump, Wasserstein's Heidi gets caught up in student protests, self-awareness therapy, biological clock crises, AIDS and finally unmarried-motherhood without (in Susannah Harker's blandly competent performance) letting anything get to her too deeply.

There's a chronic lack of plot here, and Wasserstein writes with a plodding sentimentality that rules out any of the Neil Simon one-liners that might have made Heidi and her appallingly smug, introvert friends bearable. Only at the very end, in two closing scenes, do we begin to get the glimmering of a coherent storyline; the rest is a compilation of lame revue sketches all too neatly pinpointing, albeit unintentionally, everything that has been wrong with America in the last quarter of a century: David Taylor directs a British cast understandably bewildered by their underwritten, infinitely irritating characters.

At the Donmar Warehouse, Pentecost is not last year's David Edgar hit about art-treasures in Eastern Europe but instead an earlier play of the same title written by Stewart Parker just before he tragically died of cancer at 47 ten years ago. Set in Belfast during the Ulster strike of 1974, which effectively ruined all hopes of peace there for 20 years, this is a darkly lyrical account of the lingering tribal suicide of Northern Ireland told, unusually, from a Protestant point of view.

The house where Pentecost is set is, symbolically, in a derelict no-man's land at the border of the hostilities: Its occupants, one of them a ghost, meet to talk through the questions that remain unanswered today about the agony of Ulster past and present. Dublin's Rough Magic Company, on an all-too-rare visit to London, invest them all with dignity and plausibility, so that we come to believe whoever is speaking at the time. If the play is ultimately inconclusive, so too are the issues it raises: Thirty years on, far too little has changed, far too much is still horribly topical.

On the National's Cottesloe stage, Stephen Poliakoff's Blinded By the Sun is a remarkable tribute to C.P. Snow; not only does it focus on his "two nations" debate about science versus art, it is also written in the form of a university thriller often strongly reminiscent of such Snow plays as The Masters.

We are dealing here with a scientific fraud, one loosely modelled on the Utah University "cold fusion" scandal of 1989. This, like many previous scientific tricks, was the result of otherwise noble men forced to prove their "results" too soon and therefore faking them with disastrous consequences. One of the Poliakoff characters (Duncan Bell) perpetrates a similar fraud and is caught; but the play's interest in the clash between science and commerce also gives us a wily old senior tutor (Graham Crowden), a "pure" scientist (Frances de la Tour) who refuses to offer up any evidence that she has achievend anything at all after 30 grant-subsidized years in the lab, and our narrator (Douglas Hodge), a so-so scientist who has sold out to popular radio and television and made himself both powerful and a fortune in the process.

The result of the clash of these archetypes is a memorable and often gripping drama about the uses and misuses of science; Poliakoff's conclusions may be self-evident (science needs money and time rather than any commercial or academic pressure), but as with the genre itself, it is his methods of reaching those results that give his script both its tension and its triumph.

It was Jean Anouilh who famously divided his plays into the "pieces roses" and the "pieces noirs," and I guess the same could go for Neil Simon. The darker plays have usually been the most closely autobiographical, but Laughter on the 23rd Floor (Queens) intriguingly straddles the borderline where the farces meet the facts.

Seen originally on Broadway four years ago, this is the one about Simon's early years as a comedy scriptwriter on American television's weekly "Your Show of Shows." Back in 1953, Simon briefly shared an office with the equally young Woody Allen, Larry Gelbart, Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks and his own brother Danny, who to this day gives college seminars in the art of comedy writing for the screen. All of them had been assembled by the one who was then by far the greatest star and yet is now almost totally forgotten-Sid Caesar, the "Max Prince" of this play.

As played now by Gene Wilder, himself of course a graduate of the later Mel Brooks academy, Prince is a strange, manic loner, forever ramming his fist through plasterboard office walls in frustration at what NBC is trying to do to his show and himself. Simon has written him at the beginning of his decline; already, by 1953, the NBC moguls were starting to doubt the wisdom of live, 90-minute comedy shows especially when run by a talent so wayward, variable and uncontrollable as that of Caesar.

And there was another problem: The witch-hunting McCarthy committee was already hoping to target television writers, especially those as dangerously anarchic as Caesar's army, for being potential Communist sympathizers, so cutbacks and closures were well on the way, not to mention a drastic reduction of the free coffee and bagels in the office.

So Laughter on the 23rd Floor is at once a celebration of Prince and a lament for his downfall; the problem for British audiences lies in trying to assess how much of a loss Sid Caesar really was to prime-time American television, and here I have my own difficulties. Unlike most of my critical colleagues (with the notable exception of John Lahr of the New Yorker), I was a child of about seven in New York at the time of Caesar's prime, and he always struck me even then as deeply unfunny, especially at 90 unedited minutes a week. He was, as I recall, somewhere halfway from Spike Milligan to Danny Kaye, and it was indeed he, 20 years before the Pythons, who pioneered the random art of stopping sketches in mid-flight and pointing out their ghastliness to the camera. He was certainly, as the list of his discoveries would indicate, a wonderful finder of young comic talent, but his own talent for manic disruption wore a little thin even for viewers under ten.

So one begins to understand NBC's desire to get the show, if not off the air, then at least into some reasonably shorter time frame, and once you accept that, there is really no drama here, just an affectionate scrapbook of Simon's earliest professional memories of being allowed to giggle with the big boys. But there is now this wonderful performance from Gene Wilder, a strange, introverted, fascinating actor who roams around the stage in his own private world, only occasionally emerging to bewilder his disciples or inspire them with his own deeply eccentric neuroses. This is a truly great comic turn that makes those of a hard-working local company grouped respectfully around him look just like a lot of acting where Wilder does a lot of inspired living. Unlike the comic he plays, Wilder is in fact hugely disciplined on the set and therefore a great deal more hilarious, because every loony thing he says and does comes from a deep interior logic, which makes it absolutely normal once you accept the bizarre mechanisms of his own thought-process.

Diane Samuels's Kindertransport is now into the Vaudeville with Diana Quick still giving a stunning central performance as one of the German children sent to England to escape the Holocaust but then unable, after the war, to forgive a well-meaning mother for their enforced separation. The play has touched a very strong nerve here and in America among the children who were thus displaced, and many of them have indeed helped finance this transfer to the West End. Did we not know of their existence, and their ongoing torment about being torn apart in l939, it might be hard to accept the bitterness they still seem to feel for parents who were, when all else is said and done, only sending them to safety.

But now, at Hampstead, we get another glimpse of life under Nazi occupation. Julian Garner's The Flight Into Egypt is a kind of Anne Frank variant, this one about a Jewish girl in Poland (heartbreakingly played by Paloma Baeza in what has to be the stage debut of the year) who only survives the pogroms and the invaders by hiding in the cupboard of a friendly janitor (equally strongly played by Con O'Neill).

But the story is not just of her incarceration: She happens to be a brilliantly talented miniaturist painter, and the art historian (a rotund Paul Jesson) who inadvertently caused her family's destruction is, after the war, the one who wants to take her to fame and fortune in New York. Will she go for it, starting like the Kindertransport children on a new and safer life or will she stay with her janitor and build a postwar life in the ruins of Poland?

Give or take the usual suspense about her wartime safety in hiding, it is really only in a rather brief last scene that the play comes face to face with its ostensible theme, the survival of art under unimaginable deprivation and wartime horrors. Clearly there are echoes here of Sarajevo, but the play seems oddly unable to galvanize itself into any real conclusions: Indeed, there are times when its first and second halves seem to have been the work of two quite different writers.

For all that, John Dove's close-up staging brilliantly captures the sheer claustrophobia of the setting and the gradual awakening of supreme talent in a child least expecting it: Anne Frank meets Helen Keller in a curious mixing of two safe old dramatic themes.

Elsewhere, a couple of very disparate musical hits: at the Bridewell, climaxing a remarkable summer season of "lost" musicals, we get a long-delayed British premiere of Romance Romance, the Barry Harman/Keith Herrmann Off-Broadway hit that was nominated for five Tonys in the original Dasha Epstein production from 1988.

This has always been a tricky one to sell, not least because it consists of two totally separate one-act scores, the first based on Arthur Schnitzler's short story of turn-of-the-century Vienna, Die Kleine Komodie, and the second on a one-act play by Jules Renard updated to a contemporary setting in The Hamptons.

Both writers were noted cynics with a dash of schmalz, and I guess you could argue that both shows are about love lost and regained; but beyond that and cross-casting they really have very little in common, and while the first (Viennese) score sounds inevitably very sub-Strauss, the second is vastly more interesting, a genuine challenge to Sondheim and Maltby & Shire in its wonderfully acerbic, intelligent distillation of modern sexual shenanigans.

This second score should, I reckon, have been expanded to full-length, since it has a rare energy and vitality and range from the bitter-sweet to the simply dyspeptic. Mark Adams and Ria Jones lead a versatile quartet who have to get themselves abruptly from a nondescript tale of the Vienna Woods to what is effectively the musical version of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and judging by the investment here, the producers are clearly hoping for something more than a month in one of London's smallest fringe venues. Whether they'll make it to the West End or not is chancey in the present austere climate for new musicals, but I hope at any rate they get around to making a CD.

-- By Sheridan Morley

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