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Educating Rita

Willy Russell's venerable intellectual comedy "Educating Rita," featuring an alcoholic poet manque and a sassy hairdresser hungry for learning, ought to be a duet for cello and flute. The Colony Theater revival plays like dueling tubas in an oom-pah band.

Cast:
Frank - Bjorn Johnson Rita - Rebecca Mozo

Willy Russell’s venerable intellectual comedy “Educating Rita,” featuring an alcoholic poet manque and a sassy hairdresser hungry for learning, ought to be a duet for cello and flute. The Colony Theater revival plays like dueling tubas in an oom-pah band.

The breeziness of the definitive 1983 film, toplining Michael Caine and Julie Walters, disguises the enormous acting difficulties posed by this inverted “Pygmalion.” (Here, the posh teacher changes his student’s thought process, while leaving her lower-class accent alone.)

Building intimacy in the course of weekly arguments over Ibsen, Blake and E.M. Forster, thesps can admit only a smidgen of romantic interest while offering discreet peeks into characters’ personal lives: her abusive husband and sense of worthlessness; his drunkenness and creative disappointments.

This is gossamer stuff, to which helmer Cameron Watson applies all the finesse of Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots. From the moment she barges onto Victoria Profitt’s bibliophile’s dream set, Rebecca Mozo’s Rita attacks her adult ed tutor with unrelieved sarcasm at top volume, Frank (Bjorn Johnson) returning sneer for sneer, bellow for bellow.

Each seems to have chosen “put upon” as the dominant character trait, while possessing a limited repertoire of gestures with which we become familiar long before scene two.

Watson’s approach flattens out the careful exploration of strangers, their gradual discovery of each other and the ebb and flow of accommodation. Frank’s lesson on what Forster meant in “Howards End” by “only connect” is ironic here, because these characters’ connections are frayed, if present at all amidst all the overt, unmodulated conflict.

Johnson, a big droopy bear of a man, and Mozo, all bucktoothed gamine smile and glowing eyes, are physically well suited to their roles. The problem’s not her (mostly authentic) Liverpudlian accent or his (mostly appropriate) disengagement; it’s simply their engaging in largely unrelieved shouting for well over two hours. All brass, no tinkle.

Speaking of tinkling, John Swihart’s incidental music, linking the many scenes with a catchy rhythm and pleasant melody, is said to be his first for the stage. It shouldn’t be his last. He knows how to add delicacy when it’s needed most.

Educating Rita

Colony Theater; 268 seats; $25 top

Production: A Colony Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Willy Russell. Directed by Cameron Watson.

Crew: Sets, Victoria Profitt; costumes, Terri A. Lewis; lighting, Jared A. Sayeg; sound, Cricket S. Myers, Rebecca Kessin; original music, John Swihart; production stage manager, Brianne Levine. Opened Aug. 23, 2008; reviewed Aug. 24; runs through Sept. 21. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.

Cast: Frank - Bjorn Johnson Rita - Rebecca Mozo

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