Nobody who witnessed Julie Harris’ take on Emily Dickinson in her Broadway and TV triumph “The Belle of Amherst” should doubt her ability to fill a stage or screen unassisted. Here she takes on another eccentric, garrulous, slightly dotty writer from the past. The Isak Dinesen of “Lucifer’s Child,” authored (as was “Amberst”) by William Luce, is older (74), and so is Harris (70); hers is an altogether believable — if not always lovable — portrait.
The play deals with Dinesen in 1959, packing in her Copenhagen home, aglow with anticipation of her first visit to the United States (where she will address the American Academy of Arts & Letters, meet Marilyn Monroe and end up in intensive care in a New York hospital), and then back in Denmark five months later, brooding, brooding, brooding on her journey.
Nothing but time separates the segments, since they consist of a nonstop recitation, moments deliciously out of focus alternating with others that are brutally rational, about the events of Dinesen’s life. Mainly, there’s her time in Africa, where she was brought by her unloved husband, the Baron Bror Blixen, to help run a coffee farm in Kenya that eventually failed. Neither Dinesen nor Harris seems in danger of running out of breath as the narrative hurtles onward.
Harris manages an endearing all-purpose European accent that dips toward an Irish brogue at times. Nothing — not age, nor Dinesen’s heavy overlay of kohl — can dim the flirtatious eyes Harris has flashed over nearly half a century of superior performances. Stuffed into Brian Savegar’s claustrophobic sets like a bonbon in a Godiva gift box, coddled in Charles Gross’ genteel score with its frequent borrowings from Schubert and Tehaikovsky, she casts an unmistakable gleam.
There are exasperating moments in Dinesen’s unstoppable flood of reminiscence as “one of God’s chosen snobs”; as much of it is peevish as loving. Something about the urgency of Harris’ delivery makes you want to bear her out.