In a commercial currently airing in New York for an online food-shopping service, a delivery guy says to Cynthia Nixon, “Aren’t you the little homemaker?” While Jean Brodie’s adoration of all things Italian might make her endorse the actress’s choice of recipe (eggplant parmesan), the impassioned educator surely would arch an imperious eyebrow at such a condescending definition. Women, under her tutelage, are encouraged to pursue a dedicated life of great spirit and initiative. The distance between the miscast Nixon and her character is almost as glaring onstage in the New Group’s inert revival of “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.”
Adapted by playwright Jay Presson Allen from Muriel Spark’s 1961 novel, Miss Brodie has been a magnet in many incarnations for grande dames of the stage, among them Zoe Caldwell, Vanessa Redgrave, Geraldine McEwan, Fiona Shaw and Maggie Smith, who won an Oscar for the 1968 screen version. Those interpreters share some fundamental characteristics of the flamboyant Edinburgh teacher from the Marcia Blaine School for Girls — a facility for self-aggrandizing eccentricity; innate pride, poise and authority; and the ability to balance steely determination with vulnerability. Nixon may be capable of generating those qualities, but she fails to summon them here.
On the evidence presented in director Scott Elliott’s pedestrian staging, this is a profound mismatch of leading actress and character. Jean Brodie is a larger-than-life Pied Piper who sweeps through the play, trailing the chosen girls of her set behind her like adoring disciples. Her romantic swooning, shameless narcissism, Svengali-like mystique and reckless embrace of political causes — all in the sometimes muddled service of Goodness, Truth and Beauty — demand theatrical affectation, not naturalism.
Nixon tends to convey flinty, grounded intelligence, her warmth and humor nestled behind a circumspect veneer. Those qualities were deftly applied in her Tony-winning turn last season in “Rabbit Hole,” but they don’t fit flawed, fanciful Jean Brodie. Thus it’s perhaps unsurprising that Nixon rarely connects with the character, whom she misreads as an excited rather than exciting woman. So much of her energy is channeled into conquering a Scottish brogue, and into maintaining a complicitous, self-satisfied smirk, that she misses the mark on the character both at her most formidable and her most pathetic. Most of all, Nixon sacrifices the acid humor as line after line gets undersold.
Part of the problem also lies in the dated play, not least in Allen’s cumbersome framing device, which has been dropped in some productions. It takes the form of an interview with former Brodie girl-turned-cloistered nun Sister Helena (Caroline Lagerfelt) about her bestselling book, “The Transfiguration of the Common Place.” The scenes seem heavyhanded in their disclosure of what became of “dependable” Sandy (Zoe Kazan); they make a clunky springboard and linking device for her recollections of life at Marcia Blaine and a belabored thematic extension of the play’s ruminations on truth and illusion.
Coming on the heels of a superior play set in the education milieu, “The History Boys,” the New Group’s timing arguably couldn’t have been worse. Hector in the Alan Bennett play and Jean Brodie are both progressive teachers in conservative environments (one in the 1980s, the other in the ’30s) who share a colorful turn of phrase and a belief in opening young minds to culture rather than stuffing them with facts. And, for different reasons, both are considered dangerous influences to be rooted out by starchy school principals.
Spark and Allen explore some intriguing points, paralleling Jean’s cultivation of a “creme de la creme” elite with her admiration for fascist leaders Hitler, Mussolini and Franco and with Sandy’s evolution as a subversive who eventually becomes the architect of Jean’s downfall. But the play’s psychological and political subtexts are laid out as plodding melodrama; they compare pallidly to the bracing intellectual ricochet of ideas that powers Bennett’s play. “Jean Brodie” now works mostly as a complex character study; without a persuasive performance in the title role, it crumbles.
Jason Lyons’ lighting succeeds in differentiating a range of environments on Derek McLane’s single set: the convent; Miss Brodie’s classroom; the studio of artist Teddy Lloyd (Ritchie Coster), Jean’s married erstwhile lover; and the school grounds. But the production is as static in design as it is in conception.
Even the reliable Lisa Emery fails to inject the requisite grit into the juicy role of iron-willed headmistress Miss Mackay.
The play also gets shortchanged in terms of its sensuality. Nixon has cool chemistry onstage with Coster’s rather drab Teddy and, perhaps more explicably, with Mr. Lowther (John Pankow), the stodgy choirmaster who proves too timid for Jean. Pankow is appealingly earnest, but Coster underplays Teddy’s knowing cynicism.
Among the girls, Betsy Hogg has a disarming sweetness as stuttering Mary MacGregor, foolishly hailed as a heroine by Miss Brodie when Mary blunders to her death on a misguided crusade.
In the key role of Sandy, the “assassin” whose vanity drives her almost as much as Jean’s does, Kazan is certainly fearless, but she seems oddly blank — more petulant than calculating. We don’t feel the relish in her revenge for being consistently underestimated by Miss Brodie. When she poses nude for Teddy after becoming his lover, the schoolgirl’s sudden confidence should be scary, but the scene, here at least, carries no shock.
This is a bloodless “Miss Brodie,” past its prime.