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Brits Over Broadway

The cultural stamp of British acting is drawing New York theatergoers to some pretty stark, rarefied vehicles. Anyone for a 37-minute play?

December 01, 1996|Laurie Winer | Laurie Winer is The Times' theater critic

NEW YORK — The Liberty is one of those historic 42nd Street theaters earmarked for redevelopment that no one has cared about in a very long time. Built in 1904 as a legitimate playhouse, it wound up as a hideaway for men with a taste for watching porn in Times Square. The theater has been empty for six years. It looks as though no one has cleaned it in at least that long.

Yet theatergoers are now arriving at this unlikely location, walking inside past sheets of grimy plastic, a hideous insulation against the cold December nights. The paint is peeling everywhere--in the auditorium, on the proscenium, on the brick at the very back of the bare stage. Many of the seats are roped off with long strands of yellow caution tape. The only working toilet is a porta-potty. Outside.

What an interesting place for Fiona Shaw, darling of the British theater, winner of four Olivier Awards for best actress, to make her American stage debut. Into this wasteland, audiences congregate to see this legendary performer--if a performer can be legendary at 36--recite a poem.

Under bare lightbulbs (ingeniously arranged by designer Jean Kalman) and the meticulous direction of Deborah Warner, Shaw performs T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land." (No set designer is listed because there is no set.) This is one of the most stark theatrical experiences imaginable and lasts only 37 minutes--the 7:30 show lets you out in time to be just a few minutes late for a Broadway play at a theater with indoor plumbing.

Tickets cost $35, probably the most expensive theater ticket in history if you calculate dollars per minute. At that rate, "Nicholas Nickleby" would have had to cost more than $500, or, in today's dollars, a second mortgage. But people are snapping up tickets, and the producers are considering an extension for this limited run (scheduled at present to end Dec. 15). Why? Because, besides being an intense if minimalist experience, "The Waste Land" is the snob ticket of the year.

This season, seeing Shaw do Eliot outranks seeing Michael Gambon do David Hare's "Skylight" at the Royale Theatre, the other snob hit of the season. It also outranks seeing Roger Rees, the original and much adored Nicholas Nickleby, and David Threlfall, the original and much sobbed-over Smike in "Nicholas Nickleby," reunited for the first time since 1981, in Jean Anouilh's "The Rehearsal" at the Roundabout.

*

What is it about British acting? Does there exist a young American actress who could lure a crowd into a rat trap to hear a poem many of them hoped never to encounter again after college? I don't think so.

Shaw's Britishness carries with it the badge of high culture. Let's not forget that Eliot himself was born in St. Louis and fled for Britain when he was 26, never to live on native soil again. Eliot was a snob as well as a genius. With its impacted literary references, "The Waste Land" (1922) is the snobbiest poem ever written. The critic Edmund Wilson points out that in the poem's 434 lines, Eliot quotes at least 35 writers, several popular songs and six languages including Sanskrit. (Wilson referred to its "cargo of erudition.") One can encounter the poem knowing only very few of the references (the secret handshakes of highly educated people), but that would largely be an exercise in frustration.

Shaw is a wonderful guide into the dense universe of "The Waste Land," which can be read as a quest for spiritual meaning in a sterile urban environment, set against the new modernism and fragmentation following the first world war. The "unreal city" of which Eliot writes is very much recognizable today.

Like the poem, Shaw cultivates an assortment of tones, taking on the various voices of the characters that pop up amid the literary references. With subtle shifts in her voice and physicality, she plays a clairvoyant reading Tarot cards, a cockney lady without any teeth at 31, a shopgirl who gets rudely used one afternoon by a clerk and the eternal voice of the poet as well, a stately, unhurried observer of all that is passing and all that is mortal. She calls out the mysterious refrain: "HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME," as a harried barkeep or train conductor, barking out an ostensibly common request that seems strangely tinged with death.

Shaw has an aura of piercing intelligence, with eyes that seem to be remembering every sad sight they've ever seen. She wears her hair cropped like a boy's, a severe, unadorned look that serves the evening well. The newspaper ad for "The Waste Land" features her posing provocatively, sans blouse, although she is always fully dressed onstage. Apparently, the show's marketer did not have enough faith in the power of high culture to bring in the crowds.

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