Joely Richardson and Macaulay Culkinin Madame Melville
(Photo:  Joan Marcus)
Joely Richardson and Macaulay Culkin
in Madame Melville
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Richard Nelson's Madame Melville is a charming but slight treatment of one of the hoariest literary themes that have clogged the Zeitgeist during the past two centuries or so: the adolescent boy initiated into sexual awareness by his sensual French teacher. Okay, sometimes she's not a teacher; sometimes she's a governess or the boy's mother's best friend. Or sometimes, as in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, the teacher is a man and the student is a young girl.

Madame Melville is a decidedly minor piece from Nelson, whose last two offerings here were the rich and turbulent Goodnight Children Everywhere and the rich, wintery adaptation of James Joyce's The Dead. Despite some dapper variations in the narrative, the intermissionless memory play Madame Melville would probably fade quickly from the mind were it not for Macaulay Culkin.

The former child star, who dropped out of the movies more than five years ago, has returned to acting with an astonishing performance as 15-year-old Carl, son of an American businessman posted to France. Actually, when Carl enters at the beginning of the proceedings, he informs the audience he's now much older than he was in 1966 as a student at the American School in Paris. That was the time, he goes on to say, when he came under the sway of Madame Melville, an unmarried woman using the honorific "Madame" at the school's request and very much in her own prime.

Having said that, Carl relives the two days in his past when, at the end of a school outing Madame Melville had conducted, he stayed behind in her apartment in hope of some special attention. And, presto-changeo, Culkin is 15 again--something you'd think difficult for a 20-year-old thesp to do. Slipping into Carl's skin, Culkin is breathtaking; and that's the right word, because, among the mannerisms common to teenagers, Culkin incorporates into his performance the habit of taking little breaths before many of the words he speaks. It's a shrewd observation on the way timid youngsters have of expressing themselves.

Everything Culkin does is spot-on as he allows himself to be seduced by Madame Melville and gains enough confidence to contemplate seducing back. He's got the physical carriage of the character down, a round-shouldered posture that makes him look as if he's inching backward when he's actually walking forward. He's got a way of looking up from beneath hooded eyes to signal shyness. He hesitates at the beginning of sentences, especially if they start with "I"--he utters the self-referential word and then, before barreling on, takes another of those sucked-in breaths. When he's drunk a few too many glasses of wine and is listening to a reading from the Kama Sutra, his embarrassed giggles couldn't be more evocative of awkwardness in the face of desire.

Curiously, Culkin's impersonation of a boy being introduced to the ways of the world is so persuasive that some theater-goers have been heard to complain that they find Culkin, not Carl, annoying. It's understandable that they might assume Culkin is playing himself, particularly after they've seen the curtain calls and watched him shamble back on stage, an emblem of uncertainty and reticence. But to consider his performance anything less than skilled is to make a big mistake. For an enchanted hour and 20 minutes Culkin becomes Carl. It's a transformation worth seeing.

Joely Richardsonas Madame Melville(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Joely Richardson
as Madame Melville
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Of course, the actor is not working in a stage vacuum. Madame Melville, played with coltish ease by the long and lanky Joely Richardson, shares Thomas Lynch's nicely evocative set with Carl. (The flat is filled with books and LPs to indicate how culturally aware the character is.) "Claudie" to her friends, Madame Melville is an intelligent and conscientious woman who happens to be recovering from a romantic setback; Paul, a married math teacher also on the American School staff, has just dumped her. That's the reason for her throwing adult caution to the wind and indulging the impulse to sleep with Carl after he's missed the last metro and has to stay overnight. That she more or less comes to her senses the following morning doesn't mitigate her guilt, nor does it make her final parting with Carl any less effective. Indeed, the way she takes her leave of him when he stops by briefly some weeks after their impromptu tryst is so touchingly mundane that Carl, looking back on it all those years later, insists on reliving it twice.

The other significant role in this four-hander (Carl's irate father, played by Steve Todar, makes a late and brief appearance) is Ruth, Madame Melville's next door neighbor. She's an American expatriate violinist, living in Paris after having walked out on her husband and child to pursue a career in music. Ruth is giddy and gossipy, but her every affect is meant to disguise a profound sense of remorse and concern. She is also fiercely proud of her musicianship, never more so than when listening to herself on a recording Madame Melville puts on the hi-fi. As Ruth, Robin Weigert has the ability to conjure many moods simultaneously and, in so doing, threatens to steal the few scenes she's in. Hers is one of those supporting performances that all but guarantees a leading role for an actor the next time out.

Henry Adams once remarked that teachers are important because there's no telling how many students they have influenced or through how many succeeding generations. Richard Nelson, who directs his own play with the same lilting style in which he wrote it, has come up with a lovely, water-color illustration of Adams' trenchant and true remark. Culkin, Richardson, and Weigert help make sure it hangs on in the mind, pretty as a picture.