“Madame Melville,” the latest London hit to come calling in New York, is a slender, heavily perfumed slice of drama from Richard Nelson made notable by the presence of ex-child movie star Macaulay Culkin in the central role of a 15-year-old American lad seduced by his Parisian teacher.
Culkin’s Carl narrates the tale, recollecting his initiation into the rites of love and the allure of art at the practiced hands of Claudie Melville (Joely Richardson), teacher of his literature class in 1966 Paris.
The big event occurs one night when Carl has stayed behind at chez Madame M. after a class outing. In her funky book-lined parlor, meticulously realized by set designer Thomas Lynch, the playful Claudie gently teases out a confession that Carl had loitered in the bathroom intentionally, waiting for the other students to depart.
They chat about art and girls well past the last Metro, listening to Stephane Grappelli. Next thing you know, she’s inviting him into the boudoir for a glance through her coffee-table Kama Sutra — and Bob’s-your-uncle, as the Brits say, Carl is a virgin no more.
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Affection for the play will probably turn on one’s fondness for Claudie, the dominant presence. Sensitively played by Richardson with a French accent that’s accurate to the point of occasional incomprehensibility, Claudie is the type of Frenchwoman who dispenses advice about painting, lovemaking, Proust and other Gallic specialties with a wise and wistful air.
Nelson’s writing is more delicate than the foregoing précis would suggest, even if his subject is on the precious side. His direction is subtly cued to the currents of hesitancy and affection between this odd couple, although the opening scene is too languidly paced.
The play’s nostalgic, romantic tone also is nicely varied by the presence of Robin Weigert, who plays Claudie’s blowzy American neighbor with an invigorating zest and a devil-may-care extroversion that’s in contrast with the more carefully contained performances of her co-stars.
Culkin himself received mostly glowing notices for his stage debut in London, his return to showbiz and acting after a six-year hiatus. At 20, he is indeed eerily convincing as a coltish 15-year-old, but his performance here seems self-conscious and oddly strained. He recites the dialogue in an artificial cadence that doesn’t seem to vary with its meaning.
There is likewise a certain monotony to the cascades of demure giggles Carl often dissolves in as the talk turns to naughty things. Of love and sex he may learn a bit, but with his eyes ever shyly cast downward, by the end of the play Carl gains far more intimate knowledge of the buttons on his blue Oxford shirt.