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Finding glory in gray skies. (Commentary).

Pessimism is a popular stance in England, a country where the glass is definitely half-empty--if not, indeed, almost entirely so, as anyone who has ordered a Scotch at intermission on the West End probably has discovered.

Success is suspect, too, which may be why the English theater has displayed a warm affinity for the work of Anton Chekhov, the eternal poet laureate of life's also-rans, whose ghost hovered over several of the most notable theater productions in London this fall.

The playwright himself was represented at one of the city's hottest venues, the Donmar Warehouse, where the theater's soon-to-exit artistic director, Sam Mendes, took his first crack at "Uncle Vanya." The West End hosted a commercial run of a Brian Friel jeu d'esprit, "Afterplay," that imagined the after-lives of "Vanya's" Sonya and the hapless Audrey of "Three Sisters." And, in differing ways, the spirit of Chekhov infused both Tom Stoppard's massively ambitious triptych about the 19th-century Russian intelligentsia, "The Coast of Utopia," and David Here's new play, "The Breath of Life," whose considerable merits were left to struggle for attention in the wake of the critical raptures unleashed by its cast, which consisted merely of two of the country's most popular stage stars, capital-D dames both: Maggie Smith and Judi Dench.

"Afterplay" proved to be a disappointingly slight, surprisingly prosaic vehicle for a pair of actors, Penelope Wilton and John Hurt, who deserve far better. (Paging Mr. Hare.) But Chekhov was beautifully served by Mendes' "Vanya."

Mendes' cast is sublime on paper, and sublime onstage. Simon Russell Beale offers a benchmark Vanya, not the buffoonish sad-sack one often sees but a man whose natural intelligence, thwarted by circumstance, has been turned into a self-lacerating, sardonic humor. Helen McCrory's Yelena sparks a real erotic charge from the magnetic, sexy Astrov of Mark Strong. His casual dismissal of the adoration of Emily Watson's delicately luminous Sonya brings the play's round robin of thwarted affection full circle.

The play famously concludes with the disillusioned Vanya and Sonya soldiering on in life, their eyed fixed on a bright, distant day when human happiness will be not a dream but a reality, one toward which their thankless lives will somehow have contributed. A similar spirit infuses much of Stoppard's "Coast of Utopia," an expansive, witty, intelligent, informative and, by the end of its nine-hour running time, rather enervating enterprise that gives further proof of Stoppard's amazing powers of eloquent intellectual synthesis if not of his self-awareness. It's a tribute to the incomparable richness of his writing to suggest that being treated to nine hours of Stoppard is a bit like being served nine courses of foie gras at one sitting.

Staged with elegant sweep by Trevor Nunn, the first play, "Voyage," is beautifully structured, with the first act depicting romantic complications at the country estate owned by the family of the would-be radical Michael Bakunin, the second coveting the same period of years in Moscow and St. Petersburg, where a generation of young men from the Russian gentry are agitating for reform of the country's repressive government and demeaning social structure.

In the subsequent two plays, the personal and political lives of the various characters, most significantly the exiled political philosopher Alexander Herzen, are collapsed together, as Stoppard shows, essentially, the futility of living by grand ideologies, political or romantic.

Unfortunately, as the triptych progresses, the artfulness that marks the first play thins out, and we are mostly left with journalism--consistently witty and well-spoken journalism, yes, but lacking in the dramatic pulse needed to concentrate the attention for the period required. Stephen Dillane plays Herzen with an aptly wry, dry diffidence, but after a while it is impossible not to notice that Mr. Herzen apparently cannot open his mouth without emitting a speech.

The cost of hanging onto ideals is also a theme central to Hare's "Breath of Life," which is perhaps more properly Proustian in spirit than Chekhovian (not for nothing is one of its two characters named Madeleine). Smith and Dench are, as expected, thrilling to watch, but their presence seems to have had the curious effect of causing many to dismiss Hare's play as a wispy vehicle.

Not so simple

I think it is far more than that. Hare brings forth many evocative ideas about the troubled course of life and love simply by allowing two complex, naturally eloquent characters to dig into themselves and each other. Some gratuitous digressions aside (those anti-American quips stick out as the playwright's voice intruding upon his characters'), "The Breath of Life" is an insightful and ultimately moving examination of the ways in which life--and people--come up short, and how dreams of what might be blind us to the satisfactions of what actually could.

The performances by Dench and Smith are all one could hope for, and there is something particularly moving about the way Dench delicately allows Smith to glitter most obviously in what is clearly the better role. Dench's finest moments are reactive, the kind liable to go unnoticed by audiences not attuned to the emotional forcefulness of this actress' smallest gestures.

Delicacy is just what's absent from the city's other headline-grabbing fall theater event, the National Theater's revival of "A Streetcar Named Desire," starring Glenn Close. Trevor Nunn's production could sorely use an injection of Chekhovian subtlety (let's remember that Tennessee Williams revered Chekhov).

Close's age is beside the point--she's hardly the first actress to take on the role at a somewhat advanced age--and her determination and skill are undeniable; she's devised all sorts of vocal shifts and extravagant but often inappropriately comic line readings to bring the character to life. But no applications of skill and intelligence can serve to manufacture the bruised essence of Blanche DuBois--and it's this essential quality that eludes this naturally forceful actress.

The other major event of the season was comparatively small in scale, though large in impact. It was the world premiere of another brief but exhilarating thunderclap of a play by Caryl Churchill. "A Number," like her "Far Away," was directed with incisive intelligence by Stephen Daldry. The superb Michael Gambon and Daniel Craig played a father and his three sons: one the original, two clones. But the play is hardly a dry meditation on medical ethics--it is an eerie, unsettling examination of the slippery nature of identity and the knotty relationships between parents and children. Perhaps only Churchill could suggest with such trenchant economy the potential for horror in the father-son relationship, the way the poison of one generation seeps down into another.
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Author:Isherwood, Charles
Date:Dec 2, 2002
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