One quick response to "Indiscretions"-- the very bad title given Jean Cocteau's 1938 play "Les Parents Terribles"-- would be to chalk it up as the latest show-offy import by a hot National Theater director-designer team mining a lost work from the wartime era and putting its own stamp on it.

One quick response to “Indiscretions”– the very bad title given Jean Cocteau’s 1938 play “Les Parents Terribles”– would be to chalk it up as the latest show-offy import by a hot National Theater director-designer team mining a lost work from the wartime era and putting its own stamp on it. That was the case with last year’s remarkable revival of J.B. Priestley’s 1945 “An Inspector Calls,” a play with which “Indiscretions” has nothing in common except for having been exhumed, grabbed by the throat and shaken until anything and everything inside falls out.

What a wild ride these shows take an audience on. “An Inspector Calls” has been an unexpected (and rare) dramatic hit on Broadway, and if audiences can get beyond a central casting error, “Indiscretions” should follow suit.

It’s a disturbing romp that will need a big assist from the critics and long-term word-of-mouth from the patrons if it’s to have any chance of recouping a tab that was fast approaching the $2 million mark by opening night.

While there are many indiscretions in “Indiscretions,” the title is more suggestive of a West End sex farce than the libidinal horror show unfolding at the Barrymore.

Then again, even “Les Parents Terribles” falls short of preparing one for a fever dream of a play that offers both a mother’s sexual obsession with her son, and a father and son sleeping with the same lover — a point, the father claims when the situation is revealed to him, that would be dismissed as far-fetched “in the silliest boulevard farce.”

Well, farce is the least of what Cocteau had in mind. A crazy quilt of Freudian fantasy, over-the-top melodrama and black comedy, “Indiscretions” veers giddily from one extreme to another: A constant disorientation is a big part of its thrill. If only Kathleen Turner weren’t giving a performance of surpassing awfulness, “Indiscretions” would almost certainly qualify as the season’s most astonishing production.

Turner probably seemed a good choice for Yvonne, a Parisian cousin of the seething Maggie the Cat she played in a 1990 Broadway revival of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”

Yvonne lost interest in her husband, George (Roger Rees), the day her son, Michael (Jude Law), was born. She carried him to his bed every night until he was 11 years old, and even now that he’s in his early 20s, she can’t restrain herself from drawing a hand longingly across his chest or pulling him to her bed for some charged kissing and tickles.

Her bedroom, in an Art Nouveau townhouse, looks exactly like the “gypsy camp” her family calls it, especially in Stephen Brimson Lewis’ dreamy, voluptuous setting: nearly all gray, set off by the creamy silk undergarments spilling out of an armoire and sprouting like honeysuckle from every aperture.

With her hair a wild tangle and her shoulders barely wrapped in a silk shawl, Turner’s languor is palpable as she slips into the john to administer an insulin shot before passing out in the play’s opening scene, a nightmarish reprise of which will bring the story to a close.

But she speaks as if chewing marshmallows, and for all her delicious deshabillage, Turner can never do better than roughly indi-cate Yvonne’s gypsy soul. That’s not nearly good enough when her imperious sister, Leo (for Leonie), is played with breathtaking wit by Eileen Atkins; her begoggled, failed inventor of a husband, George, is played with unnerving intensity by Rees; and her flighty, besotted son, Michael, is played by the irrepressible Law.

Rees and Atkins are nothing short of spellbinding as a husband whose twittiness barely masks a sinister egotism, and the spinster who continues to love him even after her willful sister stole — and then virtually abandoned — him. (For Atkins, who just concluded an Off Broadway run opposite Vanessa Redgrave in “Vita and Virginia,” it’s the second grand display of the season.)

At the end of the first act, when George confides to Leo his discovery that he and Michael are sleeping with the same woman, his eyes are wild and full of comic-book dementia. “How can it happen,” he says, in a whine that escalates into a howl, “in a city this size?”

The second act begins with the first of the show’s theatrical coups: What George calls the “stygian gloom” of Yvonne’s boudoir has been replaced by its opposite, a minimalist attic studio, wide open and light, dominated by a vertiginous spiral stairway. Madeleine (Cynthia Nixon, miscast for perhaps the first time in an exceptional career), descends those steps from the flies to greet Michael as he emerges from a bath.

It’s a giddy, sexy scene: Law the yipping wet puppy, Nixon the mistress grooming him before the arrival of Yvonne, Leo and George. The scene begins as frothy as bath suds; one memorable tableau has four of the five characters perched at different angles on the stair.

But it turns sinister when a plan to keep Michael in the dark goes awry and George finds himself unwilling to give up Madeleine. She tries to shut him up with kisses and he responds with a savage form of rape, leaving her a crumpled wreck on the floor.

Although her original intention was malicious, Leo saves the day by taking charge. “I’m a paradox,” she admits to Madeleine. Back in Yvonne’s bedroom, Atkins stands, cigarette holder in hand, one hip thrust out, the opposite knee turned in, her elegant silhouette hugged by an equally elegant black dress. It’s Leo’s most comfortable pose, the picture of order among the chaos.

When she tells George to let go of Madeleine and allow his son to find adult happiness, George expresses amazement — or is it amusement? — Leo has a big heart.

“Big or small, my heart never gets used,” she replies, unexpectedly adding, “It’s nice to use it.” Again the tone shifts from comic to serious as the terrible parents — selfish children, really, in all but chronology — give in to unruly and ultimately malevolent urges.

Jeremy Sams’ translation captures the era perfectly, as do the noirish insinuations of Jason Carr’s saxophone music. Director Sean Mathias navigates the play’s quick changes with exceptional confidence. Lewis’ costumes are as stunning as his set, and Mark Henderson’s lighting — fading twilight in Yvonne’s room, no-place-to-hide bright in Madeleine’s — contribute to the mood.

The first minutes of “Indiscretions” are played in a flickering light, the voices amplified, emulating Cocteau’s 1948 film of “Les Parents Terribles.”

But it ends with a heavy-handed bit of ’90s gimmickry, as the walls of Yvonne’s room pull apart, exposing the backstage, much as these lives have been pulled apart and exposed (and much like the final moments of “An Inspector Calls ,” the more overtly political play). It’s superfluous, an exclamation point on a play that has already broken all the rules.


Ethel Barrymore Theater, New York; 1,085 seats; $60 top

  • Production: A Shubert Organization, Capital Cities/ABC, Roger Berlind and Scott Rudin presentation of the Royal National Theater production of a play in three acts (two intermissions) by Jean Cocteau, translated by Jeremy Sams. Directed by Sean Mathias.
  • Crew: Sets, costumes, Stephen Brimson Lewis; lighting, Mark Henderson; sound, Jonathan F. Suffolk; music, Jason Carr. Opened April 27, 1995; reviewed April 25 . Running time: 2 hrs., 40 min.
  • Cast: <B>Cast:</B> Roger Rees (George), Eileen Atkins (Leo), Kathleen Turner (Yvonne), Jude Law (Michael), Cynthia Nixon (Madeleine).