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A Story Worth Repeating

The revival of the 1946 British political drama 'An Inspector Calls' has become a surprise hit on both sides of the Atlantic. Maybe that's because its message is as relevant now as it was then.

May 05, 1996|Jan Breslauer | Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

Four years ago, veteran British actor Kenneth Cranham was getting ready for the opening of his first stage play in five years--"An Inspector Calls," at the Royal National Theatre--when he happened to run into an older colleague on the street.

No sooner had the two thespians caught up with each other's activities than the elder man asked Cranham the question many in the London theater were surely wondering about, though they were perhaps too polite to ask.

"He said, 'Why are they doing that old thing?' " recalls Cranham with a chuckle.

Why indeed? Well, call it a long shot.

The J.B. Priestley play--which opens at the Ahmanson Theatre on May 15, with a cast headed by Cranham and Stacy Keach--is a 1946 drama with political overtones. It's a British warhorse few would have pegged as a likely candidate for a popular revival that would transfer to London's West End, where it's still running.

Even more unlikely, however, was that it would become a hit in the U.S. But it opened on Broadway in 1994, ran for a year, took home four Tony awards and has been on tour since last September.

American theatergoers are not, after all, known for their support of even mildly political theater. And any nonmusical, let alone one that's colored by class politics, is going to have a tough time on a Broadway where prohibitive costs and dwindling audiences have become the rule.

"Sure, everybody told me I was mad," snorts theater and film producer Noel Pearson ("My Left Foot"), speaking by phone from the set of his next film, on location in Ireland.

"But that just made me want to do it," he continues. "That means that there's something good about it."


Of course, there were many here who had their doubts as well. "I didn't think it would be a success," says Broadway producer Jack Viertel, who's known for his hit-finding radar and who is not involved in this production. "I thought it would quickly fade, but audiences really loved it. I loved it."

"An Inspector Calls" was, in fact, well-received in New York. The New York Times' David Richards, for instance, called it "one of the more astonishing spectacles on Broadway."

That success caught even the show's director, Stephen Daldry, off guard. "Yeah, we were surprised," he says, speaking from London's Royal Court Theatre, where he is artistic director. "Everybody was taken aback. We underestimated it.

"Obviously I was worried whether people would think it was Communist propaganda," Daldry continues. "But it's always a mistake to underestimate the intelligence of the audience."

"I hoped that it was going to be a hit," says Pearson, who won a Tony Award for his Broadway production of "Dancing at Lughnasa" and another for "An Inspector Calls." "But I never knew it would be such a big hit."

The question is why.

Some say the credit goes mostly to the 34-year-old Daldry, who radically re-envisioned the story, set in Edwardian England, of an investigation into the death of a poor young woman that ends up casting suspicion on every member of the upper-crust Birling family.

"It's a success because it's been re-imagined so, and the director has done such a remarkable job of turning it into a theatrical experience," says Viertel. "It's like a great political 'Twilight Zone.' "

Others say the thanks go to set designer Ian MacNeil and his collaborators who fashioned a massive, apocalyptic landscape dominated by a towering mansion that opens itself up, collapses and pulls itself back together during the course of the play.

And still others say it's the story. " 'An Inspector Calls' in some way resembles a classic western," says Cranham, who plays the title character, Inspector Goole (as in ghoul). "The guy rides in and he rides out at the end. It's like 'Shane' or something."

Daldry himself ascribes the popularity to a combination of factors. "It's a very strong thriller, and that does transcend boundaries," he says. "The metaphorical language of the play is also not cultural specific."

Daldry--who has also turned such theatrical dark horses as Sophie Treadwell's "Machinal" and Arnold Wesker's "The Kitchen" into box-office Cinderellas--first read "An Inspector Calls" in 1989.

At that time, the play was widely regarded as a cobwebby staple of the bygone days of British theater. "In the old repertory system, it was done to death," says Cranham, 51. "It's well-known by people a bit older than me."

The reason for its former popularity was that it's an ensemble piece with a number of good roles for both men and women. "Each component [of the stock acting ensemble] is well represented, so it was fantastically popular," Cranham continues.

In 1989, however, it was no longer so frequently performed. "Professionally, it's not done," says Pearson. "It's normally done [in] amateur [stagings], in colleges or whatever, always in a box set like a drawing room."

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