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What British Critics See in Plays L.A. Saw

December 05, 1987|DAN SULLIVAN | Times Theater Critic

It's always interesting to get the British reaction to plays recently seen in Los Angeles. John Patrick Shanley's "Savage in Limbo," which got a beautiful production last summer at the Cast Theater, opened at London's Gate Theater last month to mixed-positive reviews.

The critics showed some resistance to its typically American setup--five drifters spouting off in a bar--but most agreed that Shanley was trying to get at something real and all agreed that he knew how to throw the language around.

"A good evening that captures the cry of the cornered soul in high-octane prose," wrote Michael Billington in the Guardian. "There is no doubt that he has a terrific ear for dialogue," wrote Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph. "Unfortunately, he appears to have almost nothing to say."

Some of the London critics went back to see "Sarcophagus" when it transferred from the Royal Shakespeare Company to the Mermaid Theater. (Our version is at the Los Angeles Theatre Center.) Michael Coveney of the Financial Times thought that Vladimir Gubaryev's play had become "a superfluous minor document," now that the world was so aware of what had happened at Chernobyl Reactor 4. Alex Renton disagreed in the Independent: "What is remarkable is the spectacle of an uncensored Russian's insight into the contemporary Russian mind."

Jean-Claude Van Itallie's "The Traveller," seen last year at the Mark Taper Forum, had its English premiere at the Haymarket Theater, Leicester. The critics were unanimous in praising David Threlfall as the composer fighting to regain his speech after a stroke. "At the moment of breakthrough, you have an urge to get up and clasp his hand," wrote Paul Allen in the Guardian. Next to Threlfall's performance, the play itself struck most of the critics as synthetic.

Broadway's latest musical is "Teddy and Alice," an attempt to tell the story of Theodore Roosevelt's troubles with his uppity daughter Alice to the music of John Philip Sousa.

Clive Barnes of the New York Post was charmed, comparing the show to George Balanchine's flag-waving ballet "Stars and Stripes"; the other reviewers yawned. Frank Rich of the New York Times: "Combines the educational mission of 'My Weekly Reader' with the entertainment agenda of a half-time show at a high school football game."

IN QUOTES: Robert Brustein in his new book, "Who Needs Theater" (Atlantic Monthly Press, $18.95)--"Women and physicians generally constitute the largest audiences for serious theater."

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