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Star Turns Still Worth the Price of Admission : Broadway: Rex Harrison, Maggie Smith add luster to ‘The Circle’ and ‘Lettice and Lovage.’

TIMES ARTS EDITOR

The stage can prosper on form (“Cats,” “Les Miserables”), content (Pinter, Ionesco, Shakespeare) and performance and any mixtures of the above. Yet there is nothing quite like the star turn to conquer an audience and gallop triumphantly over any lurking difficulties a production might have.

Somerset Maugham’s “The Circle” was first done nearly 70 years ago, in the very different world of 1921, and by now it seems the very model of the well-made play of a very different time indeed. We commence with the scene-setting exposition by minor characters to tip us off to what’s going to be going on. There is the gorgeous ingenue aburble with emotions, the young lover in tennis togs ready for anything, and above all the seniors, with their tangled romantic pasts about to mesh again.

“The Circle” is sublimely artificial nonsense lit by glimmerings of social truth that are as fireflies in the night. But it is one of the hottest tickets on Broadway, thanks well-nigh entirely to the presences of Rex Harrison, Glynis Johns and Stewart Granger.

Among them the stars have 226 years of living, probably a per capita high for the current season. Their first appearances draw thunderous applause and they perform with all the confident authority born of years at the trade.

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Harrison’s step is gingerly and once or twice in the crosstalk there was a suspicion that Granger was lending a helping line. But that high and cracking Professor ‘Iggins voice--exasperation’s finest hour--was in vigorous and ageless trim.

Johns’ own distinctively cracky voice was of the sexy kitten grown to mature feline, Mehitabel with a lot of life, or lives, left. The surprise of the cast, I should think, is Granger, regarded principally as a film actor but at 77 striding the drawing room like a gent who had scarcely been outside Mayfair in all his urbane days. He seems to be having a high old time, an actor come into his own after some quiet years.

Still it is a jolt that the orchestra seats are $45. It may be that eggs and butter can be found to have increased comparably and bottled water isn’t cheap either. Yet ticket prices like these, and the production costs that no doubt underlie them, are bound to be as inhibiting on creative choices as any blue laws ever were.

Polite revivals like “The Circle” have a place on Broadway, and this one is a wonderful diversion, but the theater has to live on its future as well as its past. And its growth is nourished by risk-takings of a kind imperiled by ticket prices best suited to tourists here, and to a comfortable elite readier for escape than confrontation or concern.

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At “Lettice and Lovage,” $40 produces a seat well up in the balcony, but no one who loves the stage would consider it ill spent. From any height, Maggie Smith is as gifted a comedienne as can be found in the theater anywhere.

As a tour guide leading unwary visitors through a second-rate country house, she gestures in her patented way, which hints that she has extra elbows and wrists in each arm. Her voice does not so much crack as plummet into a hollow and echoing basement only to soar again into a garret squeaky with mice. Her pauses are, to coin a phrase, breathtaking in their rightness, and her inflections can lend menace, alarm, scorn and incredulity to the most innocent word.

Margaret Tyzack (to be remembered as Soames Forsyte’s sister in “The Forsyte Saga”) is Smith’s helpful opposition, doing a fine job in the shadow of Smith’s tourist tour de force.

Smith indeed overrides the fact that Peter Shaffer’s third act is padded with a quite unnecessary complication which, among other things, detracts from his clear intent to mix humor with angry social comment. His ultimate target is the despoilation of London, and by extension all of Britain, with developments that erase a lovely past in favor of a surpassingly ugly modernity.

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Tyzack and Smith, plotting a grand tour of the 50 ugliest new buildings in London, obviously bespeak Shaffer’s loathing for the shiny and characterless towers that begin to block the Thames from view.

Third act problems or not, Shaffer has created a dazzlingly fertile part for the marvelous actress who, in different modes, has also been Miss Jean Brodie and Olivier’s Desdemona. Maggie Smith is the ultimate proof that nothing the stage offers quite equals the great performer in a great role.

Even if you have to hock the farm to see it.


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