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Theater Reviews : 'Alfie' a Serviceable Revival of a Worthy Product of the '60s

October 19, 1994|F. KATHLEEN FOLEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

First produced in the early 1960s, Bill Naughton's "Alfie" is a natural for a revival. Resiliently funny and moving, full of high spirits and low humor, the play concerns the lubricious exploits of Alfie Elkins, a commitment-phobic Cockney lorry driver whose determined detachment and indefatigable sexual appetites prove a dangerous combination.

Adam Faith, who recently completed a tour of Britain in the title role, stars in the current Los Angeles production, which is part of the UK/LA Festival.

Although initially a play, "Alfie" is best known as the popular film of the mid-1960s, starring Michael Caine in a definitive performance that ranks among the very best ever committed to film. Caine's anti-heroic shadow in the role looms large over Faith. More intrinsically offhanded than Caine's, Faith's Alfie is far more the romping puppy dog, indiscriminately chewing the slippers of every female within his territory, whereas Caine's seducer, all hooded eyes and dodginess, is as directed and reptilian as a striking snake.

Then there's the question of Faith's age. In his 50s, Faith hovers dangerously on the cusp of caricature with his portrayal of what should be an eager young stud-about-town. Still a fit, attractive man, Faith manages to squeak by and remain convincing in the role, but his years lend the play a completely different resonance. Although it may not be what Naughton originally intended, that's not necessarily bad. Faith may be a long-in-the-tooth seducer, but he is inarguably more pitiable in the role.

Faith, who co-directs with Katya Nelhams-Wright, is accustomed to wearing many hats. A British pop star of the early 1960s, Faith has subsequently enjoyed success as both an actor and financial columnist.

Although Faith shows palpable promise as a director, this particular hat is still a loose fit. In a production as brisk and straightforward as Alfie's sex drive, Faith and Nelhams-Wright elicit no-frills, assured performances from their talented cast. Catherine McGoohan is particularly fine as Lily, the mousy married lady whose dalliance with Alfie results in an agonizing back-room abortion. Also a standout is Judy Geeson as Alfie's middle-aged lover, Ruby, whose randy amorality rivals Alfie's.

However, with his own performance, Faith needs a stronger directorial hand to draw out the subterranean impulses that motivate Alfie's behavior. Faith plays his laughs well, but it is only in the final scenes of the play, when Alfie is forced to confront the destruction he has wrought, that Faith unleashes his dramatic capabilities in a viscerally affecting scene.

Despite its faults, the production provides a welcome opportunity to rediscover the late Naughton's talent. Trapped in an ossified class system, Naughton's characters find recourse in humor and sex, the time-honored indulgences of the poor. Although we may be troubled by Alfie's amorality, we appreciate him as a rich comic creation, very much the product of his time--and ours.

* "Alfie," Tiffany Theater, 8532 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 5 p.m. Ends November 20. $22.50-$25.00. (310) 289-2999. Running time: 2 hours, 48 minutes.

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