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New York Theater

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

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Question: Shouldn't good play plus good leading lady plus good director plus good physical production add up to a good evening? Answer: Not necessarily -- and certainly not in the case of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie starring Cynthia Nixon and directed by Scott Elliott. The usually estimable New Group, which last season gave us the stinging Hurlyburly and Abigail's Party, has come a cropper with its latest outing.

Perhaps trying to undercut previous versions of the drama, which Jay Presson Allen adapted from Muriel Spark's novel (first staged in the West End in 1966 with Olivier Award-winning Vanessa Redgrave in the title role, then on Broadway in 1968 with Tony Award-winning Zoe Caldwell, and released as a film in 1969 starring an Oscar-winning Maggie Smith), Elliott and company have flattened the work, sometimes to the point of ennui and incomprehensibility. They fail to elicit the extraordinary Miss Brodie who is spellbinding, romantic, self-dramatizing, and free-spirited. The Scots teacher is larger than life, a creature so incendiary she might immolate not only herself but an entire school.

This should be dangerous stuff. For all her surface charm, Brodie is as delusional and fascistic as the Mussolini she so admires. To render her as a woman without bite is to diminish character and play.

Nixon, looking great in costume designer Eric Becker's peach and mauve dresses, creates a desirous and ingratiating seductress but hardly a force of nature. Even the wonderful Lisa Emery's Miss Mackay is pliable instead of durable.

Brodie's impressionable girls don't do much better. While Zoe Kazan as Sandy, Sarah Steele as Monica, Betsy Hogg as Mary, and Halley Wegryn Gross as Jenny are distinctive, they too are swallowed up by the surrounding blandness.

The men do better: Ritchie Coster's sly Teddy and John Pankow's milquetoast Gordon are vivid characterizations, and Matthew Rauch is convincing as a reporter. As Sister Helena, Caroline Lagerfelt layers her austere nun with hints of neuroticism.

Elliott places the play's many scenes on one set, speeding up the transitions. It doesn't help.

Presented by the New Group

at the Acorn Theatre, 410 W. 42nd St., NYC.

Oct. 9–Dec. 9. Mon.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 p.m. (No performance Mon., Oct. 16.)

(212) 279-4200 or www.ticketcentral.com.

Casting by Judy Henderson, CSA.

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