Paul Newman all but backs onto the stage of the Booth Theater in the opening moments of “Our Town,” so anxious is he not to hog the spotlight in this new Broadway revival of Thornton Wilder’s bittersweet meditation on life and death. But it’s no use. When the man with the rumpled frosting of gray hair finally turns to face the audience, the eyes, shrink though they do behind those wire-rimmed spectacles, give him away instantly, and the applause comes anyway, as if on cue. There’s no escaping the legacy of affection from a half-century of movie stardom, after all — particularly not when you’re standing on a Broadway stage.
Also inescapable, alas, is the gradual revelation that the stardust Newman casually trails across the stage — virtually despite himself — is all that glitters in this modest, mediocre production. An import from the Westport Country Playhouse, where Newman’s wife, Joanne Woodward, is artistic director, it never shakes the shadow of summer stock clinging to its heels. Directed anonymously by James Naughton, the production glides over the play’s deep emotional currents glibly, too often falling into the trap of sepia-toned folksiness that is always dangerously close at hand in Wilder’s affectionate portrait of daily life in turn-of-the-(last)-century Grover’s Corners, N.H.
Depicting the trivial minutiae of his characters’ discourse — the friendly chat with the milkman, the gossip over the back fence, the schoolyard flirtation — Wilder subtly evokes the larger impulses that move beneath the surface of everyday life: the striving for love, the fear of death, the comfort in company, the persistence of loneliness. Exploring how the beauty and sorrow of human existence are deeply ingrained in the mundane texture of everyday existence — and how life’s essence eludes as we live it day by day — Wilder’s masterpiece artlessly blends ruminations on the ever-“troubled” course of human existence with a seriocomic portrait of the follies of small-town life.
But as the first act unfolds, depicting 24 hours in the life of this average American town, we wait in vain for the actors to delve under the skins of their characters and reveal the souls beneath the petticoats and the three-piece suits. They rarely do. In the end it’s only the cute comic follies that come across successfully in this staging, as in the amusing second-act scenes surrounding the anxiety that attends the wedding of Emily Webb (Maggie Lacey) and George Gibbs (Ben Fox), the young neighbors whose blossoming love is the central focus of the play. The production scarcely dips into the well of deeper feeling in Wilder’s writing.
The actors seem content to accentuate the homespun humor, the (variable) Yankee accents, the miming of everyday activities; we rarely lose the sense of performers inhabiting roles. An awareness of theatrical artifice is, of course, built into the structure of the play, but even when they’re directly addressing the audience, Wilder’s characters scrupulously retain their authentic humanity. Here it’s not humanity but a quaint, theatrical facsimile of it that most of the performers exude — despite the presence in the cast of such veteran actors as Frank Converse and Jayne Atkinson as Dr. and Mrs. Gibbs, and Jeffrey DeMunn and Jane Curtin as Mr. and Mrs. Webb. (The general air of artifice is underlined by Tony Walton’s surprisingly stodgy and overdressed set, which includes a peculiar, distracting backdrop depicting — unnecessarily, one would have thought — the back wall of a theater.)
The roles are deceptively modest ones, it’s true. None is particularly large, so a sense of the characters’ interior lives must be communicated in brief sprinklings of stage time. Atkinson, for example, must imbue Mrs. Gibbs’ casual conversation with Mrs. Webb about her desire to see Paris with a lifetime’s accretion of small, unspoken hopes and minor dissatisfactions. She nearly succeeds, but the feeling dissipates quickly. Stephen Spinella, in the small role of the dipsomaniacal chorus director, shines briefly in his few minutes onstage, his haunted eyes and wiry, anxious movements suggesting a man desperately aware of his unfitness for life. And Lacey, bland in the early going, does well enough by the play’s emotional climax, when Emily returns from the grave to observe a day in her life, even if the scene never achieves the devastating power inherent in it.
Newman is an instantly likable, laid-back presence as the Stage Manager, observing the denizens of Grover’s Corners with an amiable diffidence, or peering skeptically over the top of his spectacles at the professor’s enthusiastic dissertation on the town’s ethnic makeup. With a much-beloved star in the role, we are predisposed to pay particular heed to the Stage Manager’s words — which may be why Newman, who is scrupulously careful not to let his star wattage upend the play, actually underplays the role (although a long absence from the stage may also explain his erratic grasp of the poetic pulse of Wilder’s narration). And his performance, too, is mildly infected with a countrified cuteness; it could use more of the cool steel Newman brought to his first-rate turn in the movie “Road to Perdition.”
The audience is not likely to go home feeling shortchanged, in any event. They’ve come to see a celluloid vision transformed, for the first time in four decades, into flesh. This the production obviously delivers. It serves up a pleasant, greeting-card picture of old New England, too, with sentimental flourishes that will doubtless draw a sniffle or two from the stargazers. But Wilder’s soul-stirring play that illuminates both the nobility and the pain in the evanescence of human life? For that, look elsewhere. At the Booth, even Wilder’s darkest ruminations on the troublesome course of existence come across as sayings that could comfortably be stitched on samplers.