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Theater Review

'Stanley': Tale of Destruction, Redemption

March 04, 1997|LAURIE WINER | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

NEW YORK — "If I'm to work, people have to take care of me," insists painter Stanley Spencer in Pam Gems' "Stanley," now at the reopened Circle in the Square theater. Spencer (1891-1959) was an emotional infant but a significant British artist who favored fleshy, unflattering but touchingly human nudes and didn't shy away from investing his own painted image--schoolboy bangs, rimless glasses--with Christ-like importance. The Royal National Theatre's impeccable production of "Stanley"--a tale of destruction and redemption--comes straight from London where it won three Olivier Awards, including one for best play and one for the redoubtable Antony Sher as best actor in the title role. Sher makes his Broadway debut in "Stanley."

In telling the story of Spencer, his loving first wife, Hilda (Deborah Findlay, who also won an Olivier as best supporting actress), and his hateful second wife, Patricia (Anna Chancellor), Gems has found a new take on an old tale. This is the story of an artist perverted by a hungry selfishness to which he feels entitled--his canvases, after all, afford him God-like control and cultish acclaim. And in the cavorting of the Spencers and their friends from the 1920s to the '50s, Gems creates a British bohemia (ancillary to the better known Bloomsbury), a circle of creativity and love and sex that gets twisted up as it tests the euphoric bounds of modernity and freedom.

Played in a round theater, the audience and characters both are ringed by facsimiles of Spencer's evocative paintings (supplied by set designer Tim Hatley), with Sher climbing scaffolding to work from time to time. The story's twist comes when Stanley, with his erotic demands (he believes he should be allowed 20 wives if that's what he needs), is out-manipulated by someone far more megalomaniacal and completely free of his tenderness. She is Patricia Preece, an alluring lesbian who convinces the painter to leave his faithful Hilda and then refuses to sleep with him. Patricia continues to live with her lover, the mannish Dorothy (a wonderful Selina Cadell), while taking over Stanley's home so that she can rent it out for the income. Stanley, Hilda and their two children find themselves effectively evicted.

Under John Caird's passionate direction, this pathetic little story is acted so beautifully by the four principals that the play takes on all the import it has for the characters, and their ludicrous roundelay has a uniquely comprehensible hue. Even the evil Patricia is a fleshed-out human oddity--as she is in Spencer's paintings. As embodied by the fascinating, willowy Chancellor, Patricia carelessly wrecks lives and then subjects her victims to her own tears and woes, and we never question the improbability of her gall. For Patricia, the unsuitability of poverty is reason enough for all she does. Her understanding of her own petty nature has a kind of magnificence: "I had to go into Woolworth for a Pond's lipstick!" she explains. "Well, I won't have it; it's sickening!"

And then there's poor Hilda, helpless against the onslaught of Patricia. Findlay rescues the role from pathos. Her earthiness counters Patricia's over-bred neurosis. Her suffering seems free of self-pity. As she and Stanley hash it out, she defends her position with luminous simplicity. She tells Stanley, who seems to feel that the children have stolen his share of her attention: "All the genius in the world can't alter the fact that I'm a woman. I like children. They engage me. They are beautiful."

As for the combustible Stanley, Sher makes him a whirling dervish of selfishness and tenderness, a big, petulant baby given to sudden, concussive gulps of crying and equally effulgent bursts of wonder. When he finally frees himself from Patricia's evil spell after being led by the nose for an ungodly long time, his explosion is too late but it is not too little. He is still saddled with her for the rest of his life, but still he manages to find a salvation that, despite all he has done, he seems to deserve.

"The story of sex is the key to everything!" Stanley cries in one of his many bursts of rapture. The key to his art was melding the divine and the erotic, which invested his fleshy, human canvases with immortality. Gems shows how that same credo made a tragic mess of his life.

* "Stanley," Circle in the Square, 50th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue. (212) 239-6200.

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