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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE
at The New Group @ Theatre Row, New York

FAILING GRADE
By Jessica Branch

  Miss Brodie (Cynthia Nixon) and supporting cast

It's tempting to think that diabolical cunning was behind Scott Elliott's choice of talented critical darling Cynthia Nixon to play the delusional Scottish schoolmarm who flirts with fascism and plays God with young minds. After all, the play's an indictment of the glamorous cults of personality that can blight insulated schoolgirls' lives as easily as nations and what better way to diminish the ideal of charismatic leadership than by casting an actress who simply can't summon up Miss Brodie's commanding mystique? Unfortunately, whether cunning or miscalculation, the decision derails what could have been a respectable revival - and doesn't do Nixon any favors either.  

While Muriel Spark's tale, as adapted for the stage by Jay Presson Allen, has famously offered the opportunity for grandes dames like Maggie Smith and Zoe Caldwell to dominate the stage with their overwhelming presence, the mild-mannered Nixon doesn't have their bravura touch. Despite her fetching auburn tresses and tight-fitting, brightly colored frocks, she doesn't project the force of character that keeps schoolgirls entranced and colleagues bewitched: The closest she gets is smug. Her patter ("my girls are the crème de la crème") seems just a schoolteacher's rote introductory speech, and her judgments about "her girls" and their potential are not just arbitrary, but unconvincing even to impressionable pre-adolescents. Further detracting from the play's power dynamic, Nixon's accent is bafflingly bad, while the girls have at least more or less mastered their brogues

Otherwise, the New Group's production is staged with intelligence, if not verve: The dated frame narrative is deftly handled and the device of treating the audience as an extension of Miss Brodie's class is understated and effective. But without its central dynamo, the play sputters and dies on its most basic level - Nixon's insipid Brodie just doesn't have the personality to influence teenagers into moral turpitude and risky politics..

The lack of a center does give the smaller roles a chance to shine. Ritchie Coster as the married roué Miss Brodie ensnares radiates his conflicted attraction and John Pankow, with a perpetually furrowed brow, plays her more suitable suitor with due deference - underlaid with a sullenness at knowing she's settling. Brodie's girls, not entirely convincing as pre-teens, come into their own as adolescents. Most striking is Zoe Kazan as the girl Miss Brodie relegates to a future of mere dependability. Kazan's already got a stronger, darker presence than Nixon. In a better production, one of the play's compelling questions might be whether Sandy's canniness is what lets her see through Brodie, or, paradoxically, whether it's the result of puzzling out Brodie's plots. Here, we just wonder why Brodie is so obtuse about the scheming Sandy - and why the girl seems so much more compelling than her mentor.

 


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