Touched by an Anglo

Listen to the Words; What They Don't Say Is Vital

Another example that repays study, also a performance in which much goes on between the words, is The Island. Here a heads-up is more important than a review: John Kani and Winston Ntshona, the South African actor-writers who made this piece (in collaboration with Athol Fugard) 30 years ago, announced at the BAM opening-night reception that this would be the piece's final run. So you have this week only to catch what remains one of the extraordinary performances of our time. Three decades have left their mark: The two men are looser about the middle than the characters, political prisoners on an isolated island, would most likely be. Kani's distinguished good looks have dwindled to a gaunt mask, while Ntshona's face has taken on the elfin look of an aged Zen monk. Their voices, too, are grayer, and Kani's laugh no longer rings like a cathedral chime. None of which much matters: The truths at the heart of the piece are still there; its stark physical life (restored with guidance from Peter Brook) still carries terrifying force. And a country like ours, holding a number of its own citizens in prison with no formal charge against them, no hearing, no trial, no visitors, and no lawyer to plead in their defense, will find much to ponder in the prison-show version of Antigone which is this play's reason for being. The persistent, appalling news of American soldiers and their allies getting picked off by "friendly" fire in Iraq suggests even wider applications of The Island's unspoken moral: This is what happens when a government ceases to care about the people under its rule.

Christine Ebersole in Talking Heads: letter perfect
photo: Carol Rosseg
Christine Ebersole in Talking Heads: letter perfect


Talking Heads
By Alan Bennett
Minetta Lane Theatre
18 Minetta Lane

The Island
By Athol Fugard, John Kani, and Winston Ntshona
BAM Harvey Theatre
651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn

A Day In The Death Of Joe Egg
By Peter Nichols
American Airlines Theatre
227 West 42nd Street

Where The Island raises troubling questions, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg raises, at least in me, only blank puzzlement. I don't mean to be the critical fraternity's resident crank on the subject of Peter Nichols's familiar play; it's just that I've lived through four excellent productions of it, patiently, without ever seeing the point. Bri and Sheila have a spastic child, Josephine, whom they joshingly refer to as Joe Egg ("sitting about all day like Joe Egg" is a British idiom). Bri would like to be rid of the child, and perhaps of all responsibility; a pair of well-meaning friends, and Bri's considerably less than well-meaning mother, add their two cents' worth; Bri and Sheila struggle to ease the pain by turning their traumatic history with Josephine into a set of comedy routines. Nothing improves matters and Bri leaves, sneaking out in the usual manner of people who evade responsibility.

In terms of dramatic structure, this is an extremely short story, padded out to make a full evening. Some of Nichols's padding is amusing in the right hands; other parts, like the intervention of the hearty do-gooder and his squeamish wife, are annoyingly facile no matter how well played. But Nichols never shows us convincingly why we should care enough to spend a long evening with these two unfortunates. Laurence Boswell's production, imported from London, does well enough by the piece to make me pay attention, if not to care. Eddie Izzard and Victoria Hamilton, playing Bri and Sheila, sometimes go so small in their realism that the performance looks built for that small box in your living room, rather than the stage. In general, Izzard is far too muted; a more outgoing Bri makes the play easier to invest in. Hamilton's often moving, though, and there are fine performances by Margaret Colin as the do-gooder's high-strung wife and inimitable Dana Ivey as Bri's mother. But some plays really aren't worth a second look, let alone a fourth.

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