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At home, abroad

Tony Award time, and a London-based New Yorker’s thoughts drift westward, especially after a springtime trawl on and Off Broadway that prompted various musings:

To arrive in the immediate aftermath of the Tony nominations is to see the Street in a seemingly annual state of panic the likes of which London rarely offers. At “My Thing of Love,” the creative personnel were revolving in and out of the Martin Beck so fast that one was reminded of a song lyric, “People come/people go,” from a previous Beck tenant, “Grand Hotel.” The situation at “On the Waterfront” sounded even worse, with onstage calamities vying for news space with previously reported offstage ones.

Amid such a climate, is it any wonder the British fare well in their yearly New York migration? Season after season, they play the ordered and poised Leo to Broadway’s fevered and desperate Yvonne: Anyone pondering the nine Tony nominations given those sisters’ play, “Indiscretions,” might do well to keep this in mind.

While New York tends to embrace London visitors, the reverse is often not true, unless, of course, you are Arthur Miller. Consider, for instance, likely English reaction to Terrence McNally’s “Love! Valour! Compassion!” and A.R. Gurney’s “Sylvia,” two Manhattan Theater Club hits both mentioned for London, where they are sure to meet a far cooler response, if they ever get there.

“L! V! C!,” of course, will be reviewed against Kevin Elyot’s exactly comparable, West End comedy “My Night With Reg,” and will no doubt be seen as sentimental, the pejorative adjective of choice leveled at virtually every new American play that attempts to move an audience (cf. “Marvin’s Room”). More truly problematic would be McNally’s writing of his twin Englishmen and their usage of words of endearment like “lamb” and “duck.” In a decade-plus in England, I have yet to be called either, but perhaps I just don’t have the right friends.

“Sylvia,” in turn, depends upon the kind of cozy contrivance that drives the English mad, unless the play is set in the working-class north and called “Shirley Valentine.” But to have an actress coyly portraying a dog for an evening would leave London audiences pining for Gurney’s no less animal-minded forebear, Aristophanes, in a city where Greek comedy actually does get performed; as for wife Kate’s quotations from Shakespeare, better not to imagine the response.

And though the British famously love dogs, they tend to go for the real thing. My guess is they would find “Sylvia” twee, which it is – terminally so.

While Stephen Daldry (among others) is fond of referring to “the Royal Lincoln Center,” given that theater’s ongoing series of British imports, Gerald Gutierrez’s revival of “The Heiress” suggests a candidate for traffic the other way. Indeed, the experience of seeing the production evoked the National at its best, with a cast chosen for sheer quality – not film star renown – illuminating for keeps a treasurable piece of the American repertoire.

That repertoire has been a busy and welcome part of the National lineup of late, but there’s something heady about seeing it on home turf. And in Cherry Jones, the revival has an actress destined to be as invaluable to the theater over time as fellow Tony nominee Eileen Atkins has made a career of being.

“Arcadia” ended its two-year London run June 3, its revivifying heat gone cold in the inevitable way of the theater, where all productions, to coopt Valentine’s words in Act 2, “end up at room temperature,” as is the fate of things transient.

So what better time to fly the flag for this extraordinary play in New York, and for one particular performer, Robert Sean Leonard, whose Valentine eclipses his English predecessors in the part? The actor’s achievement is to collapse the play’s antitheses – cerebral/intuitive; classical/romantic; deterministic/disordered – into the same dizzying whole achieved by the play itself. “This is not science. This is storytelling,” the tutor Septimus tells Valentine’s ancestor, Thomasina, and Leonard shows how, in present-day Derbyshire, the two remain one and the same: He’s the theorist as poet, the logician as man of feeling woundingly denied his final waltz. The performance is a marvel; so is the play. Long may they both dance.

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