London sizzles as N.Y. chills out

National Theater still dominates season

Just as a deep freeze settled over Gotham, Broadway entered its customary period of winter hibernation. Grosses wilted. Rosie finally threw in the towel on “Taboo.” And the calendar of coming attractions looked alarmingly sparse — the next Broadway openings don’t arrive until the end of February.

Accordingly, various New York critics, producers and other industry types turned their attention east, escaping New York’s frigid winter for the relatively balmy climes of London, where temperatures hovered in the 40s and the theatrical barometer maintained a comfortable level.

Under Nicholas Hytner’s direction, the National Theater, which opened two major shows in the first weeks of January, continues to be the city’s locus of theatrical excitement. Indeed, it almost seems to have leapt the Thames and planted permanent seeds in the West End, where every other theater seems to house a National transfer.

In fact, of the eight shows this critic caught in a weeklong January stay, six were National Theater productions.

At the top of any visiting American’s list of must-see attractions would have to be Howard Davies’ majestic staging of Eugene O’Neill’s “Mourning Becomes Electra,” an unlikely hot ticket on the National’s Lyttelton stage. Davies has assembled the kind of plush cast one has come to expect at the National, led by Helen Mirren as Christine Mannon, O’Neill’s stand-in for Clytemnestra, and luminous young actress Eve Best (of Stoppard’s “The Coast of Utopia”) as the Electra figure, Lavinia.

Both are absolutely superb, bringing passion and incisive intelligence to roles that at times come uncomfortably close to being bundles of neuroses cinched into hoop skirts. Davies doesn’t shy from the play’s melodramatic tendencies (at times Mirren slyly underscores them with wry comic flourishes), and he doesn’t condescend to the play by attempting to elide its flaws with staging gimmickry: Bob Crowley’s stately design honors O’Neill’s desire to write an expansive American drama that would channel the power of Greek tragedy through contemporary ideas.

Unfortunately, those ideas — largely derived from Freud’s writings — seem rather antiquated today. O’Neill’s Freud-by-numbers approach to his characters restricts them to two dimensions, and the dialogue can leave you wincing. In the end, even this indisputably first-rate production cannot persuasively argue for the play as an accomplished work of art. Unlike O’Neill’s greatest plays, “Mourning Becomes Electra” is informed by pre-conceived ideas about fate and psychology, not observed or experienced human truths.

The heavy weather of O’Neill’s triptych couldn’t be further from the sunny climate of “Anything Goes,” another American period piece being given a richly idiomatic production by a mostly British cast. It may be true that the one American actor in the cast, the gleaming, high-spirited John Barrowman, most effortlessly captures the insouciance of the Cole Porter musical, but he’s surrounded by thesps who show an innate understanding of the knockabout comic style so central to this fizzy concoction.

Sally Ann Triplett is a brassy Reno Sweeney; Martin Marquez is spot-on as public enemy No. 13 Moonface Martin; and Simon Day embraces the priggishness of upper-crust twit Lord Evelyn Oakleigh with outlandish gusto.

The problem of class, that elephant in the room of British culture, is being explored in intriguingly varied ways in several productions on the boards. At the National, Matthew Bourne’s inventive “Play Without Words” is in a return engagement. This witty dance rhapsody, loosely based on the Joseph Losey pic “The Servant,” casts as many as three performers in each of its primary roles. They often share the stage at the same time, a daring gambit that pays off spectacularly, amplifying the psychological resonance — and sheer theatricality — of a series of intense, often erotic encounters.

“Play Without Words” has more intriguing things to say about the potential for treachery in intimate relationships in general — and the master-servant relationship in particular — than a more obvious candidate on the London stage, Patrick Marber’s “After Miss Julie.” The stalwart Donmar Warehouse, under new artistic director Michael Grandage, is clearly holding its own against the onrushing tide of National Theater productions in the West End.

But Marber’s update — transplanted to a Labor politician’s country house just after the close of World War II — tends to expose the creakier aspects of Strindberg’s original rather than to illuminate its deeper meanings in contempo terms. It is hard to conceive that this knowing Miss Julie, played as a calculating vixen by Kelly Reilly, could be driven to suicide in the aftermath of her liaison with her father’s valet. By 1945, wasn’t that kind of thing commonplace among the British upper classes?

The two new plays at the National’s intimate Cottesloe theater made for an interesting contrast. David Hare’s “The Permanent Way” is an oral history of a series of grisly tragic train accidents that followed the privatization of the national railway system. An intelligently crafted piece of documentary theater in the vein of “The Laramie Project” or “The Exonerated,” it has scant appeal for American audiences. (But where, oh where, is “My Zinc Bed,” Hare’s extraordinarily fine play from 2000, which has yet to materialize on this side of the pond?)

Martin McDonagh’s “The Pillowman,” by contrast, is an extravagantly macabre fantasy, as funny as it is grotesque, and as untethered to reality as Hare’s play is rooted in it. Jim Broadbent and Nigel Lindsay play (marvelously) a bickering pair of policemen in a vaguely defined totalitarian state. They are investigating a series of grisly child murders, and believe they have found the culprit in a mousy young man whose stories foretell the killings in every detail. The play is compulsively watchable, full of deliciously off-kilter dialogue, and it is staged by John Crowley with a savory flair for its wildly variable tone, from deadpan comedy to Grand Guignol.

But it’s all sensation. At one point McDonagh’s beleaguered protagonist scornfully says inferior writers write “what they know” because they’re too stupid to make stuff up. But there is a more salient reason: Writing what you know is the easiest way to ensure your work has some grounding in emotional truth, as O’Neill’s inconsistent output could be cited to prove (“Long Day’s Journey Into Night” is vastly superior to “Mourning Becomes Electra,” after all). For all its diabolical cleverness and flashy theatricality, “The Pillowman” feels empty on this crucial score — it’s not unlike a self-consciously lurid action movie, complete with Tarantino-esque black humor, in a more highbrow package.

What better argument for the vital importance of a true sense of humanity in art than a first-class Shakespeare production? The day after seeing “Pillowman” I ventured to Stratford — via train, mind you, heart in throat — to see the Royal Shakespeare Co.’s highly anticipated staging of “All’s Well That Ends Well.” The sense of occasion derives from the presence of Judi Dench in the relatively small role of the Countess of Rossillion.

But this is no slapped-together star vehicle. Dench’s delicate, fine-grained performance is only one of the production’s infinite pleasures. Gregory Doran, the RSC’s new a.d., has crafted an uncommonly cohesive production of Shakesepeare’s rarely staged comedy. Embracing the play’s somber tone, and underscoring its melancholy, mildly cynical observation of the follies of love and marriage, Doran and his incomparable cast conjure a world in which the susceptibility of human nature can be lamented, even as the mysterious beauty of life itself is quietly celebrated. It’s a measure of Shakespeare’s wondrous, confounding richness — and Doran’s sensitivity to it — that the most moving moment in the production is apportioned to Parolles, the most roundly scorned of the play’s characters (wonderfully played by Guy Henry).

The production moves to the West End next month, where it will join two other RSC stagings by Doran: a well-received “Taming of the Shrew” paired with John Fletcher’s riposte to the Bard’s battle-of-the-sexes comedy, “The Tamer Tamed.” This happy resurgence in the West End should give the company a much-needed morale boost as it searches for a permanent London home. (The Piccadilly has been mentioned, but a return to the Aldwych would have the concomitant effect of dislodging that putrescent “Fame.”) The RSC may well be headed for a renaissance under Doran after a period of tumult and strife. All’s well that ends well, indeed — and look out, Mr. Hytner.

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