With his wild eyes gaping as he scampers manically about the stage, Michael Sheen’s Mozart is like a rabid raccoon in satin breeches. Watching his fevered activities with feigned detachment is the Salieri of David Suchet, a velvet wolf coolly stalking his prey. The rivalry between these two beasts, one wayward but good-hearted, the other domesticated but corrupted by envy, is the dramatic pulse of Peter Shaffer’s celebrated “Amadeus,” a Broadway and West End hit marking its 20th anniversary with a revival directed by Peter Hall, who helmed the original.
Actually, it’s not the characters but the stage animals — the actors themselves — who must hold the attention in this respectable but uninspired production of a play that has not, with the passing of years and some tweaking, acquired the patina of an enduring classic. Two decades after its smash Broadway run, which led to a popular, Oscar-winning film, “Amadeus” merely seems like a literate, cheeky and rather long-winded vehicle for a pair of star turns. Whether Broadway debutants Suchet and Sheen provide the wattage necessary to attract sufficient audiences to a play whose acclaimed film version is readily available at the video store remains to be seen. (That $70 top ticket price won’t help, either.)
When it opened on Broadway in 1980, the play’s rude picture of Mozart as a crude and feckless man-child had the appeal of novelty: Here was one of the most revered artists of the Western world seen through audacious new eyes — or at least revealed in gaudy new colors to the popular imagination. Surrounding his portrait of the artist as a young vulgarian, Shaffer spun a comic melodrama from the whispers of history suggesting that Mozart’s contemporary, the court composer Antonio Salieri, had a hand in his untimely death.
Shaffer’s Salieri narrates the play, which follows the two composers’ diverging fortunes over a decade at the Viennese court of Emperor Joseph II (a nicely understated David McCallum). The drama unfolds as a long confessional flashback. In 1781, Suchet’s courtly, portly Salieri is ensconced in the Austrian capital when Mozart arrives from the provinces trailing a glorious history as a performing prodigy and a composer of astonishing speed and accomplishment.
Salieri is soon thoroughly unhinged by the galling contrast between the celestial sounds of Mozart’s music and the puerile buffooneries of the man himself. His beef isn’t with Mozart but with God: That this womanizing ruffian should be chosen to deliver the music of the heavens, while the devout Salieri is doomed to be the conduit of more mundane sounds, is too cruel to be borne. Salieri vows to take revenge on such an unjust God, and the destruction of Mozart’s career will be the instrument of his vengeance.
The most famous piece of music criticism in history — that Mozart’s music featured “too many notes” — is duly trotted out for a laugh here, but Shaffer’s play suffers the opposite problem: “Amadeus” could in truth use a few more nuances. Professional envy is a fairly commonplace emotion to construct a three-hour play around, and Salieri’s flashy fulminations against God’s injustice and his machinations derailing Mozart’s advancement are elaborated at eventually palling length.
The play’s elementary dynamics place a heavy burden on its actors, who must flesh out the limited dimensions of the drama with bravura technique to keep the play crackling along. Previous Salieris have included heavyweights such as Paul Scofield in the play’s London debut, Ian McKellen on Broadway and F. Murray Abraham in Milos Forman’s film. Suchet takes a fairly dry, subtle approach to the role, cued by some rewriting by Shaffer that seeks to de-fang a portrait deemed too simplistically villainous. Unfortunately, a kinder, gentler Salieri dampens the play’s melodramatic sizzle. Suchet intelligently renders the corrosion of this man’s soul and spirit in light touches: sardonic asides to the audience, smarmy dissimulations, mournful or glowering glances. But there simply isn’t enough emotional voltage in the performance.
By contrast, in an intensely physical, intensely felt performance, Sheen seems almost desperate to provide as much sheer theatrical vigor as he can. The idea that the voice of god can be heard in Sheen’s grating whinny of a laugh is indeed appalling. But the actor also suggests a spirit of deep sensitivity beneath the shenanigans — Mozart’s face glows with excitement when he’s caught up in a musical discussion, and the peerless, pristine beauties of Mozart’s melodies could conceivably come from the haunted young man who seems always to walk in the shadow of Sheen’s manic provocateur.
Hall’s workmanlike direction doesn’t always provide a very strong hand to guide us through the tale, which darts through the years in haphazard fashion. Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether Salieri is merely narrating a scene or witnessing it — at one point Mozart rails against Salieri’s machinations as he stands looking blandly on, and you’re not sure whether he’s in the room or not. (William Dudley’s unappealing, somewhat cheap-looking sets may be part of the problem.) In sketchy roles, most of the supporting performers make minimal impressions.
The production only deeply engages us in the grim final scenes. The spectacle of a genius dying penniless has an enduring, pathetic appeal, but Sheen and Suchet also invest it with an immediacy largely lacking elsewhere. “Where did it all go?” Sheen’s delirious Mozart wonders with almost disinterested surprise, as Suchet’s Salieri crumbles beside him. The play suddenly, finally — and movingly — arrests us with its contemplation of deep mysteries: the startling, strange workings of fate, the quietude of God in the face of suffering, the sad truth that posterity may be the only power, earthly or otherwise, that judges us with justice.