Thursday, December 07, 2006

Prime Perhaps, But Not Ideal

"The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" presented by the New Group at the Acorn Theatre, Theatre Row, December 6, 2006

I love Cynthia Nixon. I always have since one of her earliest film roles, that of a maid in "Amadeus." I can still see her sobbing at the end. Add to that her run in "Sex and the City" with my good friend Kristin Davis and it's like we're BFF (sort of).

Anyway, she's back onstage in NYC, this time as Jean Brodie, the Scottish teacher "in her prime." Much has already been written about the script and her performance. I won't spend so much time on the play itself, but will focus more on the production.

Scott Elliott, a founder of the New Group, has given what is probably a faithful restoration of the play, with a couple of nice touches, though the pacing felt a little indulgent. Act I ran about 10 minutes longer than the one hour sign posted in the theatre lobby. Placing the students in front of the proscenium in desks facing the stage provide a nice opportunity for Ms. Nixon to deliver her classroom lectures. He moves the story along pretty well making nice use of Derek McLane's single set. Jason Lyons integrated lighting is a key to that success.

The costumes were quite effective, although it appeared that Eric Becker had used up his budget by the time he got to the nun's habit. That only added to the flashback concept looking like an afterthought in this staging.

Ms. Nixon's Miss Brodie is manipulative from the outset. She presents a woman who fancies herself a modern Plato, when she's really more just a pied piper. This woman is one who worships form over function, heaping praise on Mussolini for the cleanliness of his city streets. (He's also established a nature conservancy program. Such vision and virtues can't possibly make a fascist a bad thing, can it?) Her results with the men in her life are not quite as successful. There were several mentions of her accent being difficult to understand. Perhaps because I attended late in the run, this issue had worked itself out. When Miss Brodie should sparkle, Ms. Nixon only glimmers. She does not struggle like Julianne Moore did in "The Vertical Hour," but she doesn't quite sweep you off your feet like Miss Brodie should. She is an accomplished actor, but there are times when skill can't overcome an ill-fitting role.

As the two men, Gordon Lowther (John Pankow) and Teddy Lloyd (Ritchie Coster) fall for her manipulations as well. Mr. Coster's Teddy gets the better material to work with and plays it well. Mr. Pankow's Gordon is somewhat of a departure from his obnoxious baseball fan "Twelve Angry Men." I'll echo other notices that have described his performance as "sweet."

Her girls, of an impressionable age, latch on to her for approval and guidance. Jenny (Halley Wegryn Gross) is the pretty one. Mary MacGregor (Betsy Hogg), who seems to have the only last name of the four girls, is the awkward one. Monica (Sarah Steele) is the emotional one. Sandy (Zoe Kazan) is the dependable one. Of the four, Ms. Kazan gives the standout performance. I did think her nude scene dragged on a little longer than necessary. Her inner struggle as to whether or not she should betray her teacher was thoughtful and effective. Ms. Gross' accent was completely unintelligible. Ms. Steele and Ms. Hogg were both appropriate to their respective roles.

Though not groundbreaking, this was a solid and respectable production. I look forward to Ms. Nixon's next stage outing. I hear that she's been studying voice - maybe a musical next time?

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