Cynthia Nixon in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
(© Carol Rosegg)
Cynthia Nixon in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
(© Carol Rosegg)
Throughout The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie -- both Muriel Spark's minor-classic novel and Jay Presson Allen's articulate stage adaptation of it, now being revived by the New Group -- the bold and eccentric title character reiterates that she's in her prime. Indeed, Miss Brodie is hitting her stride as she gloriously manipulates adolescent girls in an Edinburgh classroom. Therefore, it's a let-down that Cynthia Nixon, taking on the role just four months after winning a Tony Award for Rabbit Hole, is not performing at her best. The result is Spark with little spark.

Nixon looks willowy and cameo-lovely in Eric Becker's 1930s frocks and Paul Huntley's wavy auburn wig, but she has made a miscalculation in her interpretation of the plum role that earned a Tony for Zoe Caldwell in 1968 and an Academy Award for Maggie Smith for the 1969 film version. Jean Brodie, raving about truth and beauty as well as the joys of Benito Mussolini, has little self-awareness and is plagued by myriad affectations. But Nixon's problem, shared by director Scott Elliott, is that she allows the audience to see how painstakingly she's layering on those affectations. "Why must you always strike attitudes?" Jean Brodie is asked. The same question could be put to Nixon, since she should be striking Brodie's attitudes, not her own.

Incidentally, the first layer -- applied like thick impasto on a Van Gogh canvas -- is the weird accent she's developed. There are traces of the Scottish burr in it, but also hints of who-knows-what-else. Listening to this Jean Brodie is like rapidly changing radio stations on the Continent. It's right for the woman to sound as if her crusade for refinement is threatening to run away with her; but if her speech is confounding, then it's simply off-putting. (Dialogue coach Stephen Gabis comes in for his share of the blame here.) Moreover, the pace that Elliott has set for Brodie and her four-girl brood remains ponderous throughout the play, including Brodie's dealings with the frustrated headmistress Miss Mackay (Lisa Emery, clipped and matter-of-fact), the philandering art teacher Teddy Lloyd (Ritchie Coster, properly lubricious), and the unsure music teacher Gordon Lowther (John Pankow, appealingly bumbling).

The director gets his best results from the actresses cast as the malleable, star-struck students to whom Brodie addresses her self-aggrandizing slogan, "Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life." These impressionable girls may be under their mentor's deft thumb, yet they also have a wide mischievous streak. In the scenes where they give free rein to their natures, gaiety lifts the proceedings. As the stuttering, dim, giggly Mary MacGregor, Betsy Hogg is touching; as the pretty and nubile Jenny, Halley Wegryn Gross has just the right qualities; and Sarah Steele is an appropriately sniveling, petty Monica.

But it's Zoe Kazan as Sandy -- the student whom Miss Brodie irreparably wounds by dully declaring her the "dependable" one of her charges -- who gets the most out of her lines and steals the entire show. Because Sandy is a precocious child and then an unusually insightful teenager (to whom Teddy takes a randy shine), the part is as treacherous as the Brodie role. Kazan, who's required to play a lengthy scene in the nude, skillfully makes the transition from schoolgirl-cruel to late-adolescent calculating. Her mastery of Sandy's wiles hits its impressive height in an explosive, five-word line -- "How could you doubt it? -- during an exchange she has with Teddy about Brodie's destructive hold on her special girls. (Caroline Lagerfelt, telling the Brodie story in flashback, plays the older Sandy, now a nun known as Sister Helena. She's fine at her task, and so is Matthew Rauch as an American reporter who wrangles the information from her.)

In his book The Education of Henry Adams, author Adams insists that the rewards of teaching lie in the influence the teacher has on the next generation and, through that one, the one after -- and so on. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a remarkable piece of writing about the darker side of that influence. Indeed, it has such power that it continues shining, though less brightly, through this troublesome treatment.