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THEATER | With sparkling revivals such as 'Buried Child,'
'The King and I' and 'A Delicate Balance,' Broadway
may have found its future by re-imagining and remounting
its past triumphs.

Oldies but Goodies

May 26, 1996|Laurie Winer | Laurie Winer is The Times' theater critic

NEW YORK — After a recent performance of the current Broadway revival of Sam Shepard's "Buried Child," which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1979, two audience members left arguing the play's merits.

One man asserted it was a profound examination of how, when a new person comes into a family, secrets must be unearthed and re-sorted and reexplained if a new family is to be formed.

The second man completely disagreed. To him, the play's depiction of emotional repression and its consequences was old news, Freud reheated. But he continued to passionately discuss the play for two more blocks, where he and his friend almost rammed into two people wondering aloud about similar family dynamics in "A Delicate Balance," Edward Albee's 1962 Pulitzer Prize-winning absurdist drawing room drama, also playing on Broadway.

Finally, and once again, everyone on and around Broadway seems to be talking about plays and musicals. And it hardly seems to matter that most of what's sparking their debate is decades old.

Los Angeles Times Sunday June 2, 1996 Home Edition Calendar Page 83 Calendar Desk 2 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Broadway revivals--Last Sunday's story about the spate of Broadway revivals should have listed Edward Albee's play "A Delicate Balance" as winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1967. "Buried Child" co-star James Gammon was also incorrectly identified in a photo caption.

For years, Broadway revivals have been the whipping boys of the American theater. Starting in the early '80s, when a flood of musical revivals hit Broadway (remember Donny Osmond in "Little Johnny Jones," anyone?), pundits began pinning the ever-imminent death of Broadway on the fabulous invalid's clear preference for remounting old shows. Further, the preponderance of revivals--particularly musical revivals--was taken as de facto proof that Broadway was nothing but a theme-park for empty-headed tourists.

At the same time, theater professionals continued to fantasize about a National Theater, a protective institution that would lovingly present the classics and somehow solve the ills of our peculiar commercial theater. This has been a recurring dream since the Depression, when Franklin Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration attempted to create a nationwide federation of noncommercial theaters called the Federal Theatre Project. Since then, heads of prominent resident theaters, such as Robert Brustein at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass., and Lloyd Richards, former head of the Yale Repertory Theatre, have argued that we already have a national theater--in the exchange of work and artists among nonprofit theaters throughout the country--but artists as disparate as Peter Sellars and Tony Randall have made attempts toward some kind of national institution.


Who could have seen that the call for a national theater and a batch of revivals would intersect in such a satisfying way? Now, at the close of its 1995-96 season, Broadway is full of revivals of both musicals and plays, and the choices for ticket-buyers are many and varied. You can see a beautiful production of "The King and I" at the Neil Simon, in which Donna Murphy makes you feel as if you are hearing the songs and understanding the plight of the British expatriate Anna, schoolmistress to the children of Siam and confidante to the King, for the very first time. One block over, at the Plymouth Theatre, you can see a superbly acted production of "A Delicate Balance," with Rosemary Harris, George Grizzard and Elaine Stritch, directed with poetic clarity by Gerald Gutierrez and played out on a stunning John Lee Beatty set.

Then there's the savagely funny Steppenwolf Theatre production of "Buried Child" at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, in which the excellent actor Terry Kinney wanders onstage in dirt-soaked overalls that have to be seen to be believed, with a heaping armful of corn--an indelible image that seems to sum up his character's complete confusion and heartbreaking tenderness. Meanwhile, the Roundabout Company offers a chance to see a plum from Tennessee Williams' overripe period, in a production of "Night of the Iguana" at the Roundabout Theatre that this critic found wrongheaded, but many found fascinating. And at the St. James Theatre, Nathan Lane takes the mantle from Zero Mostel as the funniest man on Broadway in a re-staging of the first musical for which Stephen Sondheim wrote both music and lyrics, "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum."

This season it seems that Broadway, or the 37 theaters it still represents, is becoming our own national theater, a living theater museum, a showcase in which many of the best of our directors, actors, lighting and set designers can lavish their aesthetic intelligence on our own dramatic treasures.

And why not? A knee-jerk aversion to revivals is inherently counterproductive. Theater needs to be experienced live to be understood, and there are new people to experience "The King and I" and "A Delicate Balance" and "Buried Child" for the first time, not to mention Oscar Wilde's sparkling "An Ideal Husband," performed exquisitely by London's Peter Hall Company at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.

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