Marian, Music, Morality

This naturally doesn't faze Seldes, who, playing Jean, knows exactly how to deal with competition: She renders homage, generously, and then simply makes herself inimitable all over again. Seldes is so plainly the principal attraction of this happy event that I've deliberately kept her out of my review till now, knowing full well that nobody would trust me on the subject of Play Yourself unless I could cite all its other virtues as well. It wasn't easy, since the notes scribbled across my program record almost nothing but Seldes's gestures, Seldes's reactions, Seldes's inflections, and innumerable other matters Marianic. But what can I do? As a colleague said to me the year Marian served on the Obie committee, "We are all in love with Marian Seldes." And with such complete success there can be no arguing.

So I'll change the subject and tell you a story. Many years ago, in an exotic, incomprehensible land called Broadway, a mistake was made. A work that saw the world wholly through Japanese eyes was produced as if it were a piece of Western theater. The result, not surprisingly, was that, despite its many beauties and the great care lavished on it, the work looked peculiar, over-explanatory, slightly stilted and distant. It did not last long. Then one day, the forlorn lost work found its way home to Japan, and its rescuers did the most surprising thing of all: They brought it back to Broadway, and installed it in a giant temple of culture, not many blocks north of where it had begun. Only now it looked different: The effort of journeying had given it a lean, tough quality; the changing years had made it harsh and even crude in spots. And in its happiness, it sometimes made raucous noises as it kicked up its heels. But it fit so comfortably in its newfound context that everybody was happy.

That's the story of the New National Theatre of Tokyo's production of Pacific Overtures, as staged by Amon Miyamoto, seen here for a pitiably brief week as part of the Lincoln Center Festival. The rejoicing doesn't come from its being so much better than Hal Prince's original production, but from the unforced ease that a work displays when placed in its natural context. The sets and costumes are not more beautiful than Boris Aronson's and Florence Klotz's—virtually nothing more sumptuous than their work on the show has ever slid across my retinas—but Rumi Matsumi's starker sets and Emi Wada's less ornately patterned costumes seemed built out of a whole culture's visual sense, not designed with a distancing specialness born of research. The spontaneity they released more than made up for any loss in exceptional quality.

Guilbert, Seldes in Play Yourself: Who else could hold a candle to her?
photo: Joan Marcus
Guilbert, Seldes in Play Yourself: Who else could hold a candle to her?

Details

Play Yourself
By Harry Kondoleon
NYTW at Century Center
111 East 15th Street
212-239-6200

Pacific Overtures
By Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman, additional material by Hugh Wheeler
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center (closed)

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The same was true of the acting and singing, which, if sometimes broader than Broadway, were able to flow—just what the Kanagawa madam tells her girls to do!—smoothly between the most ancient Japanese stage conventions and the most contemporary Tokyo behavior. It was infectiously alive at every point. Most gratifyingly, Miyamoto's smart, speedy staging didn't engage in any fancy acts of reinterpretation, because, as he clearly saw, it didn't need to. His only big surprise was to fill in, sensibly, an omission that had annoyed me along with a good many other people when the work premiered in 1976: In "Next," the final number, he acknowledged the existence of World War II and Hiroshima, matters which the original had left fastidiously unmentioned. (I suppose you could say they were adumbrated, abstractly, in Sondheim's lyric.) There was even a hint of 9-11. This lack of squeamishness, so refreshingly different from Broadway's customary caution, underscored again the work's essential Japanese quality; it doesn't belong in a culture based on feigning, to which corporate Broadway subscribes as surely as do Bush and Cheney, Enron and Halliburton. Japan has corporations too, of course, but they apparently haven't gotten to Miyamoto's sensibility yet. His Pacific Overtures is heading to Washington, where I highly recommend it—to Democrats.

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