An Honest Buck

You probably never wanted to know all that much about Pearl S. Buck, whose billion-seller The Good Earth, followed by a dozen other novels set in China, propelled her to a Nobel Prize as well as a permanent niche in the heart of the Book-of-the-Month Club. She achieved it all, despite her ponderous, translation-like literary style, thanks to the gutsy tenacity and genuine expertise of a childhood and adolescence spent in rural Chinese missions while the country morphed from empire to shaky republic to warlord-ridden chaos. Then she came back to the U.S. and applied her status to a tireless crusade for international understanding and world peace, brushing back McCarthyite red-baiters with one hand and China's new Communist despots with the other.

All Under Heaven (Century Theater), Valerie Harper's solo tribute to Buck's refusal to pass the buck, is more like an extravaganza, crammed full of characters and events, than the usual and-then-I-wrote stage autobiography. Starting near the end of Buck's life, as she's about to (a) embark on her last novel and (b) revisit China for the first time since the Japanese invasion, Harper's piece (co-scripted with Dyke Garrison) uses the grand old author's Connecticut reverie as a handy excuse to play everything from noisy kids and frantic refugees to alcoholic colleagues and supercilious senators. Her bright, energetic, clean- cutting style nails them all dead center, making the evening a good deal more exhilarating than a tussle with Buck's published prose.

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