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London's Starry Stages

Keira Knightley, Damian Lewis, Ian McKellen, Jonathan Pryce, Roger Rees, and Mark Rylance are among the luminaries lighting up the West End.

Keira Knightley and Damian Lewis in The Misanthrope
(© Alastair Muir)
London's theater scene is full of star turns and socially conscious works, with the two sometimes happily going hand in hand.

In Thea Sharrock's beautifully directed production of Moliere's The Misanthrope, being given a smart contemporary spin by Martin Crimp, Damian Lewis gives a masterfully sardonic interpretation of Alceste, now depicted as a famous British playwright who is having an affair with American movie star Jennifer (Keira Knightley, who's good enough). Unfortunately, he disdains her circle of friends for their hypocrisy and superficiality. Moliere may have never seen an air kiss, but he'd certainly condone Crimp's impulse to include them as emblems of modern-day relationship emptiness.

Jonathan Pryce shows off the seemingly countless vocal tones and gestures at his command as the curmudgeonly devious Davies in Bernard James' production of The Caretaker, the late Harold Pinter's first smash. Always explicit about how his output must be seen and spoken -- down to every last pause -- the leeway the Nobel Prize winner nonetheless leaves his actors is in how they convey the menace inherent on and between the lean lines. Fortunately, Sam Spruell as edgy Mick and Peter MacDonald as kindly, shock-therapied Ashton are as 100 percent on the mark as Pryce.

Mark Rylance in Jerusalem
(© Simon Annand)
Mark Rylance gives a much-larger-than-life performance -- one that may be the best he's offered in a career of remarkably varied bests -- in Jez Butterworth's much-talked-about Jerusalem. The Tony Award-winning star -- here appearing bewhiskered, tattooed, and seemingly drunk from too much wasted life -- plays John "Rooster" Byron, a former motorcycle daredevil now living in a van where he presides over a group of young misfits who embody the country's questionable future. Byron's shenanigans -- many of which test the patience of local officials and parents -- begin to tire by the second of the three acts, but Rylance's astonishing stamina doesn't. By the end of the explosive third act, Byron (get the literary reference?) emerges as reminiscent of the legendary British giants he's been trying to conjure.

In the recently reopened revival of Waiting for Godot, from which Sean Mathias mines all of Samuel Beckett's tragicomic riches, Roger Rees has now taken on the role of Vladimir. The award-winning star gives yet another extremely solid portrait of humanity's eternal hoping-against-hope -- and he's perfectly matched by Sir Ian McKellen as Estragon.

"This isn't a play. This is a story," declares The Author (Anthony Calf) the minute he strides to the center of the stage and begins narrating David Hare's The Power of Yes. Actually, The Power of Yes is really nothing more than a fancy PowerPoint address, but it is cleverly and constantly decorated with flashy projections (by Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington) and boasts a fine group of actors impersonating the many prominent figures Hare interviewed to get a grasp on what caused the global economy to spiral dramatically downward two years ago. Ultimately, the work holds the interest with a firm grip as it builds to a furious diatribe against bankers and banking.

In Really Old, Like Forty Five, playwright Tamsin Oglesby wants to call attention to the current quality of care for the elderly. To do so, she's concocted a piece of medical science-fiction during which three siblings (played with unflinching honesty by Judy Parfitt, Marcia Warren, and Gawn Grainger) begin to fail physically in disparate ways while a team of supposed caring researchers devise not so effective ways of dealing with the problem. Although Oglesby's concern is indisputably sincere, the actions she devises -- including the participation of robot nurse Mimi (Michela Meazza, giving a rightly mechanical performance) and a "policy official" (Paul Ritter) who eventually gets hoisted on his own petard -- are contrived in the extreme. By the comedy-drama's coda, it hasn't made much of a contribution to the issue other than making one keep it in mind.

Caroline Lagerfelt in Greta Garbo Came to Donegal
(© Tristram Kenton)
Frank McGuinness, who has been quietly carving himself a niche as one of the most important Irish playwrights for several decades, adds to his recurring theme of Irish unrest with the understated Greta Garbo Came to Donegal. While the play happens to be based on an actual incident, it's not surprising that McGuinness takes liberties with the facts, as he shows the lanky retired star (Caroline Lagerfelt, doing a guttural Garbo impersonation) dropping in on sought-after dauber Matthew Dover (Daniel Gerroll), who inhabits a home seen to by the impoverished family from whom the property was purchased. There, retainers' daughter Colette Hennessy (Lisa Diveney) has set her sights on medical school -- a goal supported by tough-minded Aunt Paulie (Michelle Fairley) but belittled by battling parents James (Owen McDonnell) and Sylvia (Angeline Ball). All works out more or less in the end.

Douglas Carter Beane's The Little Dog Laughed is receiving a sleek production by Jamie Lloyd, and Tamsin Greig does a bang-up job as manipulative but caustically droll agent Diane. But the incredulity stretched in the plot by having in-the-closet screen star Mitchell (Rupert Friend) turn to rent boy Alex (Harry Lloyd) for true love remains problematic.

Finally, in the new production of John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation, the often-reliable David Grindley has directed his cast to overact egregiously. The result severely dilutes Guare's notions about the hollowness of supposedly sophisticated Manhattanites' privileged lives.