BOOK REVIEW : CURTAIN by Michael Korda , Summit Books, $19.95, 378 pages : A Theatrical Tale Lost in the Telling

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Neither full-fledged biography nor entirely fiction, the roman a clef is the literary equivalent of insider trading: Exempt both from the biographer's responsibility to discover facts and the novelist's obligation to invent them.

Often written by an author privy to a few secrets, the roman a clef plays fast and loose with reality. A change of names, a few thin disguises, some imagined events and minor alterations in chronology, and the writer is home free, legally protected by the disclaimer that any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.

"Curtain," by Michael Korda, is a fanciful version of a half century in the lives of "England's first theatrical peer and greatest actor" and his second wife, "one of the most beautiful women in the world, the epitome of glamour, charm, style and talent," a luminary of the English stage at 20, winner of the Academy Award at 30 for her role as "the most famous Southern belle in history." Here the actor is called Sir Robert Vane and his lady is Felicia Lisle, dead these 25 years but revived for the purposes of the book.

In the prologue, Lord Vane is dying. With his last breath, he calls for a package, which is opened by Guillam Pentecost, his oldest friend and only collaborator. It contains the dagger purportedly given by Shakespeare to Richard Burbage, then passed down through the centuries from the greatest Shakespearean actor of each age to his successor. To Pentecost's astonishment, there is a stain on the dagger's tip that "might have been rust" but is surely not. There's nothing titillating about natural corrosion.

Having delivered his curtain line, Sir Robert expires, to reappear at once as he was in 1940--playing Romeo to Felicia's Juliet during an American tour that ends abruptly with Felicia's mental breakdown. In the aftermath of the disaster, Vane (Robby to his intimates) is being consoled by his dearest American friend Randy Brooks, "the most famous comedian in the world."

A caricature of every Hollywood cliche ever assembled, Brooks even manages to presage a few that haven't been adopted yet. "Tears came easily to him, as they did to most people in Beverly Hills"--the book is full of such curious observations, unprovable but arresting.

If Brooks is a stereotype, Marty Quick, the producer who financed the "Romeo and Juliet" misadventure, is a parody. Crude, vulgar and contemptible, he is so broadly drawn that he seems to have walked into the novel from a comic book. Even so, we're asked to believe that Felicia, famous on two continents for her fastidiousness, will fall in love with him, betraying her beloved Robby with scarcely a pang.

By the time that happens, the author has implied that the passionate relationship between Robby and Felicia exists on stage only and that the greatest actor of the century not only has other preferences, but, worse still, is too cowardly to act upon them.

Enduring the slow revelation of this intelligence is like watching cream curdle; a slow, predictable and unpleasant process. To make this transformation plausible, Felicia is endowed with a family background sufficiently Gothic to explain the increasingly aberrant behavior she exhibits as the book progresses.

Clued-in readers should have little trouble recognizing Vane's two rivals for the greatest-actor honors, although they may resent having so many cherished illusions shattered simultaneously.

The best parts of the book are those in which the author allows the sexual proclivities of the principals to take a back seat to their fascinating, thorough and supremely effective preparations for their greatest roles.

When Korda describes Vane in the process of becoming Richard III, Antony, Macbeth or Othello, he displays an understanding and knowledge of this particular actor's craft that elevates the book to the level of the biography it might have been.

This is the definitive theatrical novel that got away.

Next: Carolyn See reviews "Far Afield" by Susanna Kaysen (Vintage).

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