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Saturday Night Fever

The Countess

By New York City
If this were 1939, Gregory Murphy's new play The Countess might be ensconced in a Broadway theatre, where it would play for a full and profitable season before embarking, perhaps, on a year-long tour. Someone like Katherine Cornell would take the title role; she would appear in a dazzling succession of beautiful and extravagant gowns, framed elegantly against an inevitably well-appointed and lavish set. A mogul like Selznick would buy the rights for a movie star like Ingrid Bergman; all of the lush exterior scenes, implied but not included in Mr. Murphy's script, would be shot on location in glorious Technicolor, to the delight of moviegoers across the country. Alas, it's 1999: The Countess is ensconced in a tiny off-off-Broadway house on Theatre Row; modestly produced; sharply but not starrily cast. Mind you, it's still a delight: this period romantic psychological thriller, an exotic blend of Wuthering Heights and Gaslight, makes for theatre that compels and fascinates and enchants. But it's not entirely satisfying, and I think that's mostly because it needs to burst out of the confining space of the Samuel Beckett Theatre. The Countess is Theatre with a capital T, a larger-than-life adventure that finds itself severely constrained by the boundaries imposed by today's economic realities. Too bad, too, because in the right venue, with appropriately outsized staging and performances, it could really soar. As it is, we must content ourselves with the pleasures that this scaled-down Countess provides, which, fortunately, are many. The greatest is the story itself, a truly wonderful find from the annals of British art history, masterfully crafted by the talented Mr. Murphy (whose first play, astonishingly, this is) into a gripping drama. Set in the 1850s, it concerns the eminent art critic John Ruskin; his protege Everett Millais, a young pre-Raphaelite painter; and his wife, Effie, who finds herself caught between the passions of these two men. The Ruskins and Millais journey to Scotland for a summer of relaxation and inspiration. There, Effie and Everett fall in love, precipitating a scandal that threatens to rock the comfortable world of the Ruskins and their circle. Mr. Murphy is at his best bringing Effie and Everett's romance to life: the scenes depicting its blossoming, quietly polite in accordance with Victorian mores, nevertheless burst with erotic electricity. The moment when these two finally bring themselves to call each other by their first names, for example, feels as passionate as the most ardent of love-making. And the scene in which Effie gives Everett a haircut rivals the eating scene in Tom Jones in its transformation of the most commonplace of activities into something spectacularly sexy. Characterization is bit less sure, here; it's hard to tell whether the problem lies with Mr. Murphy's writing or the actors' playing. But Effie (Jennifer Woodward) comes across in the early scenes more timorous than willful--more Joan Fontaine than Jennifer Jones, if you will--which makes what follows a bit harder to accept. And Ruskin (James Riordan), conceived here as a rather arch and effete closet case, gives it all away much too soon: I think we need to like him and feel sorry for him before we come to understand his true nature. Effie's confidante Lady Eastlake (Kristin Griffith) veers uncomfortably toward broadness: the scene in which she faces down Ruskin's intimidating and narrow-minded parents is the comic highlight of the play but it doesn't really feel organically part of it; Ms. Griffith has a field day nonetheless. Only ardent young Millais strikes me as a consistently realized creation, especially as exuberantly embodied by the dashing and earnest Jy Murphy. Mr. Murphy and Ms. Griffith make their characters ten times larger than life: they have found the outsized style that The Countess needs to really make it breathe. Rest assured, however, that this production of The Countess is far from stillborn: in its cleverness and elegance, in its impassioned commitment to tell a passionate story, it is without peer among the plays currently on the boards in New York. The Countess is a well-made play, telling an interesting though uncomplicated story of romance and intrigue in a straightforward and linear manner (and in high style, to boot). Old-fashioned?--absolutely, but entirely welcome. It's a bit of a disappointment that our current theatre conventions can't quite support this sort of thing. But it's wonderful that someone is giving it such a game and rewarding try.

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