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Tom and Viv.

Was T.S. Eliot's marriage as sordid as all that? In the version presented by Michael Hastings's Tom and Viv, Eliot married Viv largely out of a desire to enter English aristocratic life. Later he wanted to relocate into English literary life, situated in Bloomsbury, and he found Viv an embarrassment. So he conspired with her brother to lock her away in an insane asylum, to the pecuniary profit of poet and brother both, who received control of her estate. In fact Viv's only mental deficiencies, apart from a basic incompatibility with a dry stick like Tom, came from hormonal imbalances, not in those days correctable, which disappeared at menopause. Yet in the asylum she languished ever after, still loyally loving and defending her cruel, vicious, ambitious, suspiciously religious dry stick.

This is awful--from the point of view of real life. But from the point of view of play-writing, it's all very promising, with a nice pairing of America and the Old World, innocence and corruption, power and vulnerability. Too bad, then, that Gastings's play, having strung these possibilities along the clothesline, lacks the energy to dry them. We see Tom and Viv as she edits his poems and as they work together on The Criterion, but we can never figure out how they fell for each other in the first place. Viv's vivacity doesn't seem that charming. Tom's appeal is easier to grasp, since we enter the theater knowing about him. But it can't be said that we leave with any increase in appreciation. He never gets around to reciting his work, aside from a few lines of smutty doggerel. There are further flaws in Tom and Viv--a shapelessness of plot, unconcealed by a fake documentary style--but this one flaw, the failure to present any poetry, is least forgivable. Why do a play about T.S. Eliot if not to glance at the man's work? The effect is frustrating. For here is Edward Herrmann as Tom, a marvelously gifted actor, the epitome of intelligence, lanky and long-faced just like Eliot, and surely he could recite some Eliot lines brilliantly. One almost wants to cue him from the audience. "A-pril is the cruelest month . . ." Just a word or two, please. But nothing, not even anyone else's poetry. No Dante, no Shakespeherian Rag. Not even a matching of marriage to oeuvre, which might have been interesting. Pfui!

That said, there's something to enjoy in Tom and Viv. Max Stafford-Clark, who directed Top Girls a couple of years ago, has directed Tom and Viv and with his co-workers has made the Public Theater's LuEsther Hall glow with English country life and tea settings and civilized chats about dreadful goings-on. Julie Covington and Margaret Tyzack are a pleasure to watch as Viv and Viv's mum. And there's Herrmann with his expressive hands and those Giacometti postures and his carefully shaded shifting accent, now American, now English, now hovering somewhere over the Atlantic, performing quite as if the script were deep with meaning. Tickets, incidentally, cost $18 or less.

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Title Annotation:Public Theater's LuEsther Hall, New York
Author:Berman, Paul
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Theater Review
Date:Mar 2, 1985
Previous Article:The crimes of Vautrin.
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