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The Lion in Winter

Reviewed by David Sheward

Presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company, at the Criterion Center Stage Right, 1530 B'way, NYC, March 11-May 30.

He's got the kingly bearing and the articulate voice, but Laurence Fishburne misses the human connections as Henry II in James Goldman's medieval chess game/family feud, "The Lion in Winter" (1966), now at the Roundabout. We believe this 12th-century monarch can force a war-like Britain into peace or lead its troops into bloody slaughter, but not that he loves his wife, Eleanor of Acquitaine (a wry Stockard Channing) or his mistress, the French princess Alais (a valiant Emily Bergl).

Likewise there are no links between the monarch and his three troublesome sons, each after his father's crown. When each has betrayed him, Fishburne's Act I-curtain cry of despair makes no sense because the actor hasn't established any relationships with his offspring. If there are no emotional cords, then the play is just a lot of snazzy dialogue, no matter how spiritedly directed by the ubiquitous Michael Mayer.(This is his third production currently on Broadway.)

Fortunately Channing more than makes up for the imbalance of subtext. She cherishes each tasty morsel the author has thrown her way. Watch her nail a laugh line like the anachronistic quip "It's 1183 and we're all barbarians." Her face perfectly expresses the bitter loss of her Henry while she taunts him with witty insults and plots his downfall. Of the trio of treacherous sons, only Chuma Hunter-Gault as the ferocious Richard Lionheart hints at any dimensions deeper than squabbling over royal succession. Roger Howarth gives off similar promising sparks as the French teenage ruler Philip. Neal Huff and Keith Nobbs, stronger performers in other plays, fail to get beyond shouting and sneering as Richard's nasty siblings, Geoffrey and John

"Imposing" seems to have been the keyword in the design concept, from David Gallo's gloomy castle set to Michael Krass' functional costumes to Kenneth Posner's grim lighting. That heavy, brooding quality, unleavened by light or color, unfortunately informs Fishburne's performance as well, giving us a regal "Lion" not a very endearing one.

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Macbeth

Reviewed by Glenda Frank

Produced by Theatre for a New Audience, at the American Place Theatre, 111 W. 46th St., NYC, March 14-April 4.

Director Ron Daniels' "Macbeth," produced by Theatre for a New Audience, ends with a whimper‹but there's a whole lot of bang and tinsel as the Scottish king rides the dark wings of prophecy.

The play has been edited down to its most telling images so that the poetry, stage design, and dialogue create a finely etched triptych. Center stage are the fearful transformations of husband and wife. In the first reunion, as they scheme to steal the crown, there is a delicate sexual excitement. They are tender and passionate in their yearning‹without even misstepping into the vulgar. After the murder, they are still the loving couple, sharing their horror. In the morning of discovery, wearing a flimsy nightgown, Lady Macbeth (Elizabeth Marvel) seems hardly more than a girl.

But by the banquet scene she has aged, encumbered by a heaviness (a clever costuming trick). Macbeth (Bill Camp) is cooler, at once eager to drink with his friends, cautious of contact, and crazed. Later, the sleepwalking Lady Macbeth hunches over, washed out, neurasthenic. Her husband has become a ramrod of sadistic bullying.

The scenes engage the senses. There are charms for the ear‹gourds, bells, knocks, drums, thunder. Neil Patel's set, a black lacquer circular stage, is a ring of hell enclosed by a black wall and lit dramatically by Donald Holder. The damask and linen costumes by Constance Hoffman are an ashram white, subtly punctuated with color. Duncan and his sanctified nobles wear gold sashes. As Macbeth descends, his white garments are swallowed up by a carmine cloak. Malcolm's army, which will restore peace to the kingdom, shows blue.

Despite some choices that do not stand up to close examination‹Why is the ghost of Banquo (Reg E. Cathey) naked except for a ruff?‹the production remains a memorable, chilling insight into the hearts of murderers and into the genius that was Shakespeare.

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The Countess

Reviewed by Robert Windeler

Presented by and at The Greenwich Street Theatre, 547 Greenwich Street, NYC. Opened March 13.

Jennifer Woodward is exquisite in the title role of this Gregory Murphy play, but much of the rest of director Ludovica Villar-Hauser's cast seems under-rehearsed and having yet to find its common ground. A firmly period piece, set in 1853 and 1854, "The Countess" tells the real story of art critic John Ruskin, his wife Effie, his proteg John Everett Millais and their hideously complex love triangle. (Millais calls Effie "The Countess" out of admiration.) As the Scottish-born Effie, much younger than Ruskin and way beneath his social station, Woodward never misses‹in her accent (a Londonized upper middle class with just a hint of residual Highlands burr)‹or her attitudes, which must shift constantly toward her husband, his parents, her best friend and her would-be lover, Millais. It also helps that Woodward gets to wear the most beautiful of Christopher Lione's costume designs.

Kristin Griffith, as Effie's best friend, and Jy Murphy, as Millais, come closest in the cast to finished performances. The Ruskin saga is inherently riveting. Villar-Hauser's staging is sound, as are most of the production values: Mark Symczak's scenic designs for a London drawing room and a cottage in Scotland, Dewey Dellay's music and Stewart Wagner's lighting. Yet the production cries out for two more weeks of rehearsals and previews before becoming something really special.

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The Nature of a Fool

Reviewed by Jane Hogan

Presented by and at The Theater at Holy Cross, 329 W. 42nd St., NYC., Jan. 19-Feb. 21.

The term "fool" as used by Carl Palmer in his one-man show refers to the Shakespearean meaning of the word: "out of wedlock." In this autobiographical piece, "The Nature of a Fool," the writer-performer relates the three stories that result when a child is given up for adoption: that of the birth parents, the adoptive parents, and the child himself. As a way of dramatizing the story, Palmer uses the "discovered letters" that were written between his birth parents, mainly ones written from his birth father, a would-be novelist, eventual beatnik, and "60s political theatre performer, to his birth mother. The two met during a ship voyage to Europe: the father, Sandy, heading off to be a novelist in London, his mother, Louie (short for Lucille), eager to see the world after deciding to leave the convent where she was a novitiate.

Palmer wisely avoids overemotionalizing the story, and his restrained, wry delivery allows it to unfold in a measured, but engaging, way. Under Gary Seibert's surehanded direction, the story is given definite shape, and he keeps what could be a static piece moving along quite nicely. G. Neal Krogh's lighting and Lauren Kurki's set are suitably minimal, with shifts in light used to mark the change from Palmer's narrative to the reading of his birth parent's letters. One of the members of the artistic team chose to hang the letters from strung-up rope, which adds movement and visual interest to the piece, as Palmer walks from letter to letter.

Palmer's attempts to understand the effect of adoption on his life, and certainly how it affected his identity, is a key part of the text; it may, however, ultimately appeal most to those who have a particular interest in the subject matter.

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Helena Franzand Hetty King

Reviewed by Lisa Jo Sagolla

Presented by Danspace Project, at St. Mark's Church, 131 E. 10th St., NYC, Feb. 26-28.

A fast and fascinating work by Swedish choreographer Helena Franzand a slow, moody piece by New York's Hetty King made for a diversified evening of dance at St. Mark's Church.

Franz n's "single neuron recording" is an enthralling exploration of impetus. The dancing is driven by an obvious current of kinesthetic impulses‹we see each action directly cause the next. He touches her belly, she collapses through her mid-section; as her fingers quiver she spirals and slaps another dancer who is propelled into a lunge and catches the force by pressing his arms tightly together. However, the energies play out so quickly through Franz n's sparkling phrases that one can't really analyze how the choreography is structured.

The physical motions are strong and boldly executed, but the mystery of their origins hangs in the air. The answer is sought in science‹neurology, physiology, and biology. Slides of primate skeletons, brain tissue, animals, and flora are projected, while a voice-over speaks of apes and neurons. The choreography then tries to reveal relationships between the movement languages of animals and humans. The dancers' urgent actions suggest an intense desire to comprehend their own animation, which results in a riveting vocabulary of danced movements.

King's "SOFT/a trilogy," performed and made in collaboration with Amy Baker and David Figeuroa, is a disjointed, emotionally rich work that feels derived from personal heartbreak. While much of it is unengaging, a simple solo by King is oddly moving. We hear: "Your shape has driven me to crash my plane into a field of feathers letting loose the down underbelly." King responds by running and running and running around the perimeter of the space until we practically cry out with pity for this trapped being. Her futile attempts at elevation are pathetic. She possesses no skills, wit, or strength to help herself‹just a raw, intuitive desire to live, like a struggling animal caught in a trap.

While the piece also contains a uniquely expressive duet showing the trust, conflicts, and betrayals that can develop from sharing a secret, the overall work is ungracefully structured and needlessly lengthy.

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Betty's Summer Vacation

Reviewed by David A. Rosenberg

Presented by and at Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St., NYC, March 14-April 11.

Finally a clear definition of "screamingly funny": "Betty's Summer Vacation." At Playwrights Horizons, bottles of adrenaline are no doubt doled out to the galvanic cast before every performance of Christopher Durang's comedy, in which maniacal events are both hilarious and horrifying.

Durang is mocking obsessions with sensationalism by piling on huge doses of same that appeal, not only to the salacious souls who buy the Enquirer, but also to easy-to-laugh, aren't-we-clever television and, alas, theatre audiences. He's also puncturing the hypocritical masses who tch-tch at violence but get their jollies lapping up the tribulations of the Menendez Brothers, Lorena Bobbitt, Clarence Thomas, and Marv Albert.

Betty (Kellie Overbey) is the only reasonable person in the bunch of weirdoes spending a holiday in a seashore house as picture-perfect as the one in "Pleasantville." As in that film, worms invade the apple, here in the form of a serial killer (Nat DeWolf) who's obviously escaped from "Night Must Fall"; a garrulous young lady (Julie Lund) whose father "incested" her; her batty mother, Mrs. Siezmagraff (Kristine Nielsen); a muscular stud who has to have sex at least 20 times a day (Troy Sostillio); a raincoat-clad flasher (Guy Boyd); and three laugh-track visitors (Jack Ferver, Geneva Carr, and Godfrey L. Simmons, Jr.) who spur the other characters to pile on the mayhem .

In an evening replete with dismemberments, beheadings, sexual assaults, and a mock trial that would put the Marx Brothers to shame, all the actors are inexhaustibly over the top, yet somehow lovable. A special nod to Nielsen who has a head-spinning turn as prosecutor and witnesses in a send-up, put-down version of Court TV.

Although there are occasional lapses‹a bit of preachiness here, an extended joke there‹Durang's work, under Nicholas Martin's tumultuous direction, perfectly embodies Mrs. Siezmagraff's answer when someone questions her sanity: "If I were insane do you think I would know it?" Aided by the satirical normality of Thomas Lynch's set, Michael Krass' costumes, Kevin Adams' lighting, Kurt B. Kellenberger's sound, and Peter Golub's music, "Betty's Summer Vacation" is a blast.

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City Center Honors Theodore S. Chapin

City Center will honor Theodore S. Chapin, the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization President and Executive Director at the seventh annual City Center gala. In addition to cocktails and dinner, the gala will feature an added performance of its "Encores!" presentation of "Ziegfeld Follies of 1936." The "Encores!" series produces great American musicals in concert.

The event, which will benefit City Center and its various programs, will be held Monday, March 29, at City Center. Julie Andrews will present the City Center/Leonard Harris Award to Chapin. Tickets are priced from $500-$1,000. Tickets for the performance only are $75. For more information call (212) 573-6933.

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The Tragedy of King Lear

Reviewed by Robert Windeler

Presented by and at American Globe Theatre, 145 W. 46th St., NYC, March 5-28.

This production, nicely blocked by John Basil, is good enough to remind us why King Lear is one of Shakespeare's greatest plays. But some serious enunciation problems and an overall bombastic delivery detract from many otherwise solid performances. This yelling is especially annoying in the title role, played by Joel Friedman. With Lear, when you start out raving, there's no descent into madness, merely a great, gallumphing march forward. Lear needn't be played by a star, but he must be given more subtle shadings than we see here, in order to show him as the truly tragic figure he is.

It also doesn't help that Friedman's accent is closer to Kew Gardens, Queens, than it is to the London area of the same name: "creatures" becomes "kreetjas" from his lips. No one in the cast really talks in anything more than passable Mid-Atlantic, which is fine. Shakespeare can survive even all-American accents. The playwright's glorious language also survives most presentations, and his eternal story of family intrigue, shifting loyalties and power struggles remains intact here.

The plusses of this production are many: David Pinkard's incidental music and sound design, James A. Bazewicz's spare but wholly serviceable set and a largely committed and talented cast. Especially good are Alyson Reim as Goneril, Elizabeth Keefe as Regan, Zachary Ehrenfreund as Edmund, Dennis Turney as Edgar, John Moss as the Duke of Albany, and Mike Finesilver as the Fool.

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Encounters in Passaic

Reviewed by Robert Windeler

Presented by Sage Theatre at Raw Space, 529 W. 42nd St., NYC, Jan. 2-March 14.

As a poor cousin of Clifton or the flip side of Flushing, Passaic, N.J., is near enough to New York to be a suburb but hardly tony enough to brag about. Passaic's back-side-of-nowhere commuter bus stop offers an ideal setting for Michael Bruck's simple but ultimately heartfelt tale of a bag lady at the end of her tether. Vonder Gray is superb in this tricky role that requires her to slip into and out of lucidity, and to confront her past and present simultaneously. Gray quickly makes the audience forget that she may look a tad too young to be playing the mother of a grown daughter.

The bus stop, with its sign promising escape to Clifton, Secaucus, or New York, is both the woman's regular roosting place and a metaphor for entrances into and exits from all of our lives. The set‹a wooden bench, the sign, and an orange wire trashcan‹is so elemental that no scenic designer is credited. Micah Soames has artfully directed his cast of five, who meet in pairs in the one-act play's three scenes, toward not only the revelation of the woman's biography but also the source of her pain. Julie Zimmermann as an aspiring country singer; Jason Thomas Oates as a young grieving gay man; and John Stansbury as a local bakery worker-actor, are all quite wonderful.

Playwright Bruck employs a couple too many coincidences‹Passaic isn't that small, and it does have more than one bus stop‹that detract slightly from the piece's credibility. But very little detracts from its humanity.

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Clarence Darrow Tonight!

Reviewed by Robert Windeler

Presented and at The Ensemble Studio Theatre, 549 W. 52nd St., NYC, March 3-21.

For too many of us our knowledge of Clarence Darrow is confined to Spencer Tracy's portrayal of him in the movie Inherit the Wind, based on the 1925 Scopes "Monkey" trial in Tennessee. Or perhaps we saw Henry Fonda when he toured in the 1970s with his one-man Darrow show. But we've all probably read too little about this giant of early-20th-century lawyering. Laurence Luckinbill's one-man show, which he also wrote and directed, goes a long way toward filling in those gaps. But at least one "third eye"‹a co-writer, or a different director‹would have spotted the flaws in the current presentation while leaving Luckinbill's portrayal nearly transcendent.

The device of having Darrow give a lecture during his 1930s late retirement, only to get carried away in tangential revelations about his life and work, is certainly borderline wheezebag. Yet Michael Allen's oak-furnished set is both intimate and authoritative, and Luckinbill's passionate defense of Darrow's sometimes unpopular positions and his often guilty-as-sin clients (Leopold and Loeb, most prominently) seems compellingly real. Luckinbill's midwesternly matter-of-fact delivery of much of the narrative makes these flights of rhetoric even more enthralling. The Scopes trial provides a nifty summing up of his career.

But a scene in which Darrow asks the audience 1920s-style questions on race, as if he were grilling potential jurors for a murder trial, works not at all. And Darrow may not have had much of a private life (wife and children, for example), but at least a line or two of dialogue to that effect would not have gone amiss. Finally, please lose the exclamation point in the title: Darrow was too much of a Buckeye to have allowed that.

Reviews continue on page 43.

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