In London, the play’s the thing for this film critic

EVEN THOUGH I STARTED, in childhood, with as strong a passion for theater as for films, it’s gotten to the point lately where I probably see as many legit productions in a year as I do films in a week. Partly it’s a combination of expense, time and redirected professional interest. But the real break, I have to admit, came after living in England for a year. I probably saw every production in London during the 1970 season, most memorably Maggie Smith in Ingmar Bergman’s staging of “Hedda Gabler” and Laurence Olivier in “The Merchant of Venice.” Rationally or not, I became a British theater snob, so impressed with the standard levels of English acting and stagecraft that I felt the American theater, which I had attended avidly until then, had nothing to offer.

As far as Broadway is concerned, I continue to feel basically the same way; as bad as most Hollywood films are, I usually feel infinitely more cheated after paying $ 35 or more for a play than $ 7 for a picture. Still, I try to keep up, and the unique pleasures afforded by live performance and scenic design sometimes make it worth it.

Over the past two weeks, this has decidedly been the case. During that period, I have spent more time in theater seats than during any comparable stretch of the past 20 years, and rediscovered some of the exhilaration I used to regularly associate with attending live theater.

NATURALLY, I HAD to go to London to find some, but not all, of it. Before leaving, I caught both parts of Tony Kushner’s epic “Angels In America” at the Mark Taper Forum, and shared the excitement that the audience as a whole demonstrably felt. Much has been written about this grandiose work, most focusing on its weighty ambitions, lofty themes, political acuteness and historical perspective. No critic I read, however, stated in simple terms how massively entertaining the plays are. Nor did anyone point out its striking similarities to “Torch Song Trilogy,” which extend well beyond the gay content. Both are longish works composed of intimate scenes that are nonetheless meant to be staged in a grand manner, and the hilarity of each serves as highly effective counterpoint to the serious intent that underlies them. Each speaks very specifically to its time, and offers the opportunity for the sort of bravura performances that bring audiences to their collective feet.

In London, a pleasure of a rather different nature awaited at the Globe in Sir Peter Hall’s revival of Oscar Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband.” I had never seen or read the play, which was Wilde’s last before his trial and imprisonment, but I cannot imagine a more satisfying contemporary staging.

It is, in a word, sublime, a sumptuous mounting of a supremely witty work that manages, in the course of a farcically flip-flopping plot about the blackmailing of a rising politician whose status is embedded in corruption, to express a movingly generous philosophy of life. As the author’s stand-in,rotund Martin Shaw deliciously tosses off dozens of aphorisms that retain their sparkle after nearly a century, and the high quality of acting in general served as an instant reminder of what entranced me more than two decades before. Like the rest of the country, which is in a grim mood on all fronts, London theater is in the grip of recession, with many plays offering twofers and good seats available almost everywhere at showtime. One of the few exceptions to this is Sam Mendes’ production of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s “Assassins” at the tiny Donmar Warehouse, where tickets are tough to come by. Notorious both for its controversial subject matter–the musical focuses on nine actual and would-be presidential assassins–and for being the Sondheim show that didn’t make it to Broadway, “Assassins” is, for me, the composer’s most provocative and artistically successful effort since “Sweeney Todd” (a notorious flop in London) , and could scarcely be seen or heard to better effect than in this gloriously intimate setting. Still, the work’s theme–having to do with the American impulse toward celebrity, the juncture between showbiz and politics — becomes clear early on and runs only moderately deep.

THE OTHER TRANSCENDENT theatrical occasion of my too-short London sojourn was the Abbey Theater Dublin’s continuing production of Brian Friel’s “Dancing At Lughnasa,” winner of enough awards on both sides of the Atlantic that little more need be said except that, both as a memory play and a display of ensemble acting, it has few modern rivals (there are actually two productions of it on in London at the moment, this one at the Garrick).

The one disappointment, at the Royal Court, was Timberlake Wertenbaker’s “Three Birds Alighting on a Field,” which unaccountably won the 1991 Writers’ Guild Best West End Play award. An indictment of the 1980s greed mentality attempted through a portrait of the London art world of the time, it features uniformly disagreeable characters in a work that made me feel that there was plenty of bile but no play there.

But that was nothing compared to what I felt in New York after scoring two ducats to the hottest show (along with “Guys And Dolls”) in town, Wendy Wasserstein’s “The Sisters Rosensweig” (a sign on the box office insists that no tickets are available until the show transfers from Lincoln Center to Broadway in March–“not even one”).

While Wasserstein retains her gift for the glib, this play is nothing but socially conscious, Chekhov-aware, politically correct schtick, touching on subjects that lend it intellectual credibility but exploring them not at all. If she stuck to the comedy, which Madeline Kahn and Robert Klein play very well indeed, it would be acceptable, but its calculated pretentions left me aghast at how virtually all the New York critics (save, of course, Variety’s Jeremy Gerard) could actually swallow this twaddle. It also made me want to get on the next plane back to London, where I could take in another week of worthwhile theater and, despite 20 years of effort to rid myself of the curse, become a snob again.

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