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Theatergoers Flocking To Shepard's New Play

January 25, 1986|DAN SULLIVAN | Times Theater Critic

Sam Shepard's plays didn't draw particularly well in New York when he was merely a playwright, but that's changed since he became a movie star. One of the hardest-to-get-into shows in New York just now is Shepard's new "A Lie of the Mind," uptown at the Promenade Theatre.

This is Shepard's longest play, running nearly four hours. It's about what happens when both parties to a violent marriage go home to their respective families, who are no more stable than they are. The critics tended not to like the play, but, to treat it gingerly, like a bomb that still might go off.

Frank Rich in the New York Times did like it--another reason it's doing so well. "Altogether transporting," he wrote. "Mr. Shepard has written more innovative, let alone tidier plays. But these four hours pass like a dream, with scene after scene creating a reverberant effect."

John Beaufort of the Christian Science Monitor found it it a "dark and difficult" play, sometimes mythic and sometimes merely primitive, like "Tobacco Road." Yet he was impressed by Shepard's "feel for Americana, however bizarre."

Alan Stern of the Denver Post: "Not the theatrical explosion that everyone hoped for, but rather the heavy breathing of an artist who is growing and changing." But he wondered if the heaviness might have come from Shepard's direction of the play.

The Village Voice's Gordon Rogoff thought Shepard's staging had been particularly quick, considering the length of the show. (The cast includes Amanda Plummer, Harvey Keitel, Geraldine Page and James Gammon, once of Los Angeles' MET Theatre.) But as a playwright, Shepard seemed undecided as to whether "if he wants to tell a tale about people, or a parable about the nation."

We'll have a report on "A Lie of the Mind" and another controversial Off-Broadway play, Wallace Shawn's "Aunt Dan and Leon" in Monday's Times.

Lillian Hellman is back on Broadway, not as a playwright, but as the heroine of a one-woman show. Zoe Caldwell plays the fiery Hellman in "Lillian," by William Luce, a specialist in solo evenings--his last was Julie Harris' "The Belle of Amherst."

"Lillian" had received admiring reviews in earlier stints at the Cleveland Playhouse and the Kennedy Center. ("Caldwell simply is Hellman in all her complex paradoxes: sensual and cool, fierce and feminine," wrote Marianne Evett in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.)

The show's New York reception was a touch reserved. Variety, too, thought that Caldwell was on the money, but the Times' Rich felt she gave "a first-rate impersonation rather than a compelling characterization" and felt that Luce's script smacked of a bowdlerized official biography.

Speaking of Broadway, the Arts Reporting Service bulletin advises that Broadway producer Alexander Cohen (whose contract to produce the Tony awards broadcast on TV is expiring) is negotiating to buy "Theatre World," an annual of theater events in New York and around the country.

What's news about that? Well, "Theatre World" also gives awards for commendable debut performances. "Could it be that Cohen is interested in creating an alternative to the Tony awards?" asks the reporting service. One wouldn't put it past him.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK. Rex Harrison's advice on stage fright, to the Washington Post's Stephanie Mansfield): "You're not going to get on the stage unless you have a nervous temperament, so you've got to suffer it and play all you can."

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