Brits Over Broadway

Laurie Winer is The Times' theater critic

The Liberty is one of those historic 42nd Street theaters earmarked for redevelopment that no one has cared about in a very long time. Built in 1904 as a legitimate playhouse, it wound up as a hideaway for men with a taste for watching porn in Times Square. The theater has been empty for six years. It looks as though no one has cleaned it in at least that long.

Yet theatergoers are now arriving at this unlikely location, walking inside past sheets of grimy plastic, a hideous insulation against the cold December nights. The paint is peeling everywhere--in the auditorium, on the proscenium, on the brick at the very back of the bare stage. Many of the seats are roped off with long strands of yellow caution tape. The only working toilet is a porta-potty. Outside.

What an interesting place for Fiona Shaw, darling of the British theater, winner of four Olivier Awards for best actress, to make her American stage debut. Into this wasteland, audiences congregate to see this legendary performer--if a performer can be legendary at 36--recite a poem.

Under bare lightbulbs (ingeniously arranged by designer Jean Kalman) and the meticulous direction of Deborah Warner, Shaw performs T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land." (No set designer is listed because there is no set.) This is one of the most stark theatrical experiences imaginable and lasts only 37 minutes--the 7:30 show lets you out in time to be just a few minutes late for a Broadway play at a theater with indoor plumbing.

Tickets cost $35, probably the most expensive theater ticket in history if you calculate dollars per minute. At that rate, "Nicholas Nickleby" would have had to cost more than $500, or, in today's dollars, a second mortgage. But people are snapping up tickets, and the producers are considering an extension for this limited run (scheduled at present to end Dec. 15). Why? Because, besides being an intense if minimalist experience, "The Waste Land" is the snob ticket of the year.

This season, seeing Shaw do Eliot outranks seeing Michael Gambon do David Hare's "Skylight" at the Royale Theatre, the other snob hit of the season. It also outranks seeing Roger Rees, the original and much adored Nicholas Nickleby, and David Threlfall, the original and much sobbed-over Smike in "Nicholas Nickleby," reunited for the first time since 1981, in Jean Anouilh's "The Rehearsal" at the Roundabout.

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What is it about British acting? Does there exist a young American actress who could lure a crowd into a rat trap to hear a poem many of them hoped never to encounter again after college? I don't think so.

Shaw's Britishness carries with it the badge of high culture. Let's not forget that Eliot himself was born in St. Louis and fled for Britain when he was 26, never to live on native soil again. Eliot was a snob as well as a genius. With its impacted literary references, "The Waste Land" (1922) is the snobbiest poem ever written. The critic Edmund Wilson points out that in the poem's 434 lines, Eliot quotes at least 35 writers, several popular songs and six languages including Sanskrit. (Wilson referred to its "cargo of erudition.") One can encounter the poem knowing only very few of the references (the secret handshakes of highly educated people), but that would largely be an exercise in frustration.

Shaw is a wonderful guide into the dense universe of "The Waste Land," which can be read as a quest for spiritual meaning in a sterile urban environment, set against the new modernism and fragmentation following the first world war. The "unreal city" of which Eliot writes is very much recognizable today.

Like the poem, Shaw cultivates an assortment of tones, taking on the various voices of the characters that pop up amid the literary references. With subtle shifts in her voice and physicality, she plays a clairvoyant reading Tarot cards, a cockney lady without any teeth at 31, a shopgirl who gets rudely used one afternoon by a clerk and the eternal voice of the poet as well, a stately, unhurried observer of all that is passing and all that is mortal. She calls out the mysterious refrain: "HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME," as a harried barkeep or train conductor, barking out an ostensibly common request that seems strangely tinged with death.

Shaw has an aura of piercing intelligence, with eyes that seem to be remembering every sad sight they've ever seen. She wears her hair cropped like a boy's, a severe, unadorned look that serves the evening well. The newspaper ad for "The Waste Land" features her posing provocatively, sans blouse, although she is always fully dressed onstage. Apparently, the show's marketer did not have enough faith in the power of high culture to bring in the crowds.

This year, the cultural stamp of British acting is drawing theatergoers in large numbers to vehicles that would almost certainly be struggling without their cross-Atlantic luster. And it is a thrill to see Michael Gambon, familiar here mostly due to the TV version of Dennis Potter's "Singing Detective," in the flesh. In "Skylight" he plays Tom Sergeant, a well-to-do restaurateur used to getting what he wants, who tries to win back a recalcitrant former mistress from her plain, cold-water flat in northwest London.

Gambon looks very much like a mythical creature, like some huge, exotic bird with eyeliner. His head is enormous, his fleshy face, set off by slanting eyes, unusual and even beautiful. He is remarkably graceful for someone of his bulk, a grace he shows off by taking a dance step whenever he can get away with it. About to stride across the stage, he'll pause to do a jig first.

Gambon's is a showy and external performance. At the one point when Tom is about to cry, he performs a florid gesture, hitting his palm against his forehead and then covering his face with a handkerchief. It is a complete mystery as to whether this crying is meant to be sincere or show in the wooing back of Kyra (Lia Williams), who has left Tom's comfortable home to devote herself to the education of underprivileged children.

In the end, "Skylight" (directed by Richard Eyre) is a conversation about class, a subject that sparks as much passion in Britain as discussions of race do here. Despite being tightly written, this is a chilly work, with Gambon giving what is traditionally thought of as a British performance--one that seems to have been conceived from the outside. There's no question that Gambon can mesmerize and that his is an audience-pleasing performance. But "Skylight" professes to be about an emotional struggle. Like Gambon's crying, its emotionalism remains theoretical.

In 1981 the ultimate snob ticket was "Nicholas Nickleby," a show that lacked neither emotion nor heart, while still providing the perfect technique that we expect from the Royal Shakespeare Company. (I remember it as one of the greatest days in my theatergoing life, though I also remember having to beg and borrow to pay for the ticket.) For anyone who saw "Nickleby," the first reunion of Roger Rees and David Threlfall is a notable event.

The casting of Rees and Threlfall in "The Rehearsal" provides an additional comment (external to the text itself) on how age tends to interrupt the high-minded ideals of youth. As Nicholas, the noble, handsome hero of "Nickleby," Rees embodied an unerring sensitivity to the poor and the weak. At the end of the play's 8 1/2 hours, when he picked up a starving child and held him out to the audience amid the falling Christmas snow, Nicholas seemed to represent the very best we could find in ourselves. Fifteen years later, in "The Rehearsal," Rees plays a man called Hero, oddly enough. But in this 1950 Anouilh play, he is an incalculably cruel drunk, a rapist in fact, driven by a lost love of his youth. Meanwhile, Threlfall, originally the poor crippled boy Smike, plays a playboy count, chronically unfaithful to his nasty society wife (the wonderful Frances Conroy).

Director Nicholas Martin gets a nicely tortured performance from Rees as the anti-Nicholas and a less-than-scintillating one from Threlfall, who is miscast (unless you factor in the "Nickleby" subtext). But Martin's production is not as devastating as it needs to be--we never feel (as in the similar Christopher Hampton adaptation of "Les Liaisons Dangereuses") that something important is being crushed under the manipulative wheels of horrible, bored, rich people.

On leaving "The Rehearsal," it might be advisable to rent a tape of the Royal Shakespeare Company's "Nicholas Nickleby." It will do for you what a fire on a cold night does. In more ways than length, "The Waste Land" and "Nicholas Nickleby" stand in opposition as the yin and the yang of the snob hit experience. To all Anglophiles: It's a good year on Broadway for you, but bring a coat. It's chilly out there.

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* "The Waste Land," Liberty Theatre, 234 W. 42nd St., New York, (212) 279-4200. "Skylight," Royale Theatre, 242 W. 45th St., New York, (800) 432-7250. "The Rehearsal," Roundabout Theatre, Criterion Center, 1530 Broadway, New York, (212) 869-8400, (212) 719-1300.

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