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Arts & Entertainment Preview - December 1999

Dance and Theater
B Y   N A N C Y   D A L V A   &   J O H N   I S T E L

Stage Dora

  Being John Malkovich

In Hysteria, Terry Johnson's comedy about an imagined last day in the life of Sigmund Freud, the doddering, cancer-struck, morphine-addled psychoanalyst promises Jessica, a young woman seeking treatment, "I shall try to help. But you will please remember you are in my study, not some boulevard farce." Throw in a visit from the surrealist Salvador Dali, a naked lady in the closet, and some standard door-slamming sleight of hand, and audiences will surely forget Freud's advice. Few farces of late have proved as forceful as Johnson's, in both London and Los Angeles. Now the play hits the heartland at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre (December 5 - January 22, 312-335-1650), in a production directed by John Malkovich, a founding ensemble member. It's true that Freudian theory has become so contested lately that a concept like penis envy ("Why would anyone envy a squidgy, single-minded proboscis that thinks it's God's special gift to those without?" one character asks) and a book like Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious are ripe for comic send-up. But the playwright recognizes that the Freudian cliché that a cigar isn't just a cigar makes for powerful theatrical possibilities. After all, on the stage, the fun-house mirror of the arts, nothing is ever exactly as it seems. -J.I.

Wing Tips

Coward in repose   

Few productions celebrating the centenary of Noel Coward's birth point up the complexities of his legacy as much as the revival of Waiting in the Wings. His end-of-career, critically pasted play opens on Broadway December 16, the one-hundredth anniversary of the birth of the erudite Brit. In the late 1920s and 1930s few could have seen any complexity in a legacy established by such sophisticated comedies as The Vortex (1924), Hay Fever (1925), and Private Lives (1930); by Coward's performances in dozens of plays, films, revues, and musicals; and by such slaphappy satiric songs as "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" and "Mrs. Worthington." The critic Kenneth Tynan assured readers in 1961 that "even the youngest of us will know in fifty years' time what we meant by a 'very Noel Coward sort of person,'" but for Generations X, Y, and Z that prediction has proved false. Fleeting fame, exacerbated by theater's ephemeral nature, was a sensitive issue for Coward. As the postwar English theater turned to a host of "angry young men" in the 1950s, Coward, ever the elitist, insisted on entertaining the troops. His answer to Waiting for Godot was Waiting in the Wings (1960), set in a home for retired stage divas. It has Coward's typically crisp repartee and vainglorious, grandstanding characters, but reveals a morbid fascination with what happens to legends once the parade has passed by. This month's revival features a top-drawer cast, including Lauren Bacall. The pathos promises to be palpable. -J.I.

Plum Pudding

  A perfect evening

The most popular ballet of the twentieth century was a nineteenth-century flop. In 1892 The Nutcracker bombed in St. Petersburg, with one first-night critic filing the following gloomy prediction about the Imperial Russian Ballet: "This may soon and easily lead to the ruin of our ballet troupe." Another griped, "The production of such spectacles on our stage is an insult of sorts." It was in a version of this production that George Balanchine danced the Nutcracker Prince at the age of fifteen, and his own pellucid version of the tale for New York City Ballet (November 26-January 2, New York State Theater, 212-870-5570) shows how keenly felt, even in his adult years, were the pleasures and desires of his childhood. (It also shows that he knew he had to give his dancers a lot to do to keep them interested. Even people who are sick of The Nutcracker will go to see young ballerinas make debuts in the various tricky variations.) In 1954 Balanchine first served up this perennial holiday lesson in dreams come true that is also a kind of moral tract for adults. The story was at one time my idea of a perfect evening: It's snowing. You get to go out after dark to a party, while your bratty little brother (who, everyone knows, has wronged you) stays home. At the festivities -- an evening of magical entertainments at which you are the guest of honor, recognized for your true heart and valorous conduct -- your parents, disguised as the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier, dance together with perfect decorum, revealing the sublime dazzlement and promise that await you in grown-up, married love. You ride off with your Nutcracker, now transformed into a Prince. Reader, that was my first ballet, and Maria Tallchief was my Sugar Plum. It was a magical beginning then, and for many children, in many places, no matter the version, it is still. (New York City Ballet - Tickets.) -N.D.

Nancy Dalva's essays appear in the magazine 2wice.

John Istel is the editor-in-chief of Stagebill.

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Photo Credits -- Coward: Allan Warren. Freud: Brigitte Lacombe. Nutcracker: Paul Kolnik.
Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.

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