Twankey panky

A correction was made to this column on May 2, 2004.

LONDON — It takes two to Twankey — and the second just might, I emphasize might, be Judi Dench, who is mulling coming aboard Kevin Spacey‘s inaugural Old Vic season to join old friend Ian McKellen‘s Widow Twankey in the Christmas pantomime “Aladdin.”

Dench would play McKellen’s Lancashire-accented sidekick in the production, to be directed by Sean Mathias, who guided Dench to an Olivier Award for her perf in “A Little Night Music.” The issue, as ever, is one of scheduling: Dench has a Stephen Frears-Martin Sherman film to do this fall, which takes precedence, and “Aladdin’s” hefty performance schedule — pantos often do more than the usual eight shows a week — means its workload won’t be exactly light.

Whether Dench does or doesn’t sign on, she will figure at some point in the new venture from her “Shipping News” co-star. “I have an open-door policy on Judi,” Spacey says.

Incidentally, the Old Vic’s claim that its 2005 production of “The Philadelphia Story” will mark the play’s West End debut turns out not to be right. Theater historian Richard Whitehouse informs me (and research bears out) that the Philip Barry comedy ran at the Duchess Theater in 1949; Margaret Leighton played Tracy Lord.

ON THE FENCE
‘Coyote’ ugly

Pretty much any Duchess Theater entry would be preferable to that venue’s latest, “Coyote on a Fence,” a deadly American play from Bruce Graham set on Death Row that injects the audience with a near-fatal torpor. (The play was first seen at the Cincinnati Playhouse on the Park in Ohio and apparently had an Off Off Broadway run.)

While the setting would seem to suggest an urgency in keeping with the subject, Sarah Esdaile‘s intermissionless staging — the evening lasts 100 minutes — seemed to me twice as long as the nearly four-hour Trevor Nunn “Hamlet” I saw the previous night. And without two galvanic performances from the actors playing the inmates whose time is drawing nigh, the show exacts a punishment leavened only by flipping through the program — which proves more informative and succinct than the play.

Scribe Graham’s impulses are unimpeachable: to shed light on a process that takes a lethal toll on everyone involved, from prisoners John Brennan (played by a granite-faced Ben Cross, who seems to be turning into Charlton Heston) and Bobby Alvin Reyburn (a dully manic Alex Ferns) to the jive-talkin’ black warder, played with buckets of attitude by Jo Martin, stuck with what can only be called the Whoopi Goldberg role. The quartet is completed by a hapless Eric Loren as a well-meaning, Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist, Sam Fried, who is surely no relation to sound-alike NYT writer and Pulitzer finalist Sam Freedman.

‘MISSING’ IN ACTION
Verbatim

For more (and, one hopes, better) from the U.S., there’s “Gone Missing,” which plays London May 3-22 as part of the enterprising Gate Theater’s spring season of shows under the banner title “Taking Liberties.” The hourlong piece, the second of five so far devised by the New York-based Civilians troupe, got good reviews last fall Off Broadway at the Belt Theater and should garner wider press attention in London, where there are far more newspapers.

Though entirely the work of Americans, “Gone Missing” is in the tradition of the interview-based theater pioneered in Britain by the now-defunct Joint Stock Co., which lives on via such productions as the David Hare play “The Permanent Way.” Director Steven Cosson, 35, trained at UC San Diego under Brit director Les Waters, himself a Joint Stock alum.

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