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NY Theater Reviews

Cynthia Nixon and supporting cast

Uncommon Woman

By Mervyn Rothstein

In a classroom at a girls' school in 1930's Scotland...

In a classroom at a girls' school in 1930's Scotland, an auburn-haired Cynthia Nixon,  portraying a teacher resplendent and regal in a salmon-colored dress, is standing before her desk and addressing her young and impressionable students.

She is, she says, "in the business of putting old heads on young shoulders."

"Give me a girl at an impressionable age," Nixon adds, "and she is mine for life."

That teacher's story, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, has been told often, and well. The original 1961 novel by Muriel Spark became an award-winning 1968 play, by Jay Presson Allen, and then a prize-winning 1969 movie. Vanessa Redgrave was the first Jean Brodie, in London; Zoe Caldwell won a Tony on Broadway; Maggie Smith copped an Oscar for the movie. Now it is Nixon's turn - and she does her predecessors proud.

A Tony-winner herself this year for Rabbit Hole, Nixon fully inhabits her magnetic but fatally flawed character - a woman who believes that "safety does not come first - goodness, truth and beauty come first" but whose concept of truth is riddled with error. Nixon again proves herself to be, as she calls her students, the "crème de la crème."

Her head high and her Scottish-inflected voice replete with hubris, Nixon portrays a woman both magnificent and ridiculous. Jean Brodie uses methods patently unsuitable for a conservative school "dedicated to the status quo," yet refuses to move to one that is more progressive. A woman who despises "the common moral code," she sees herself as a teacher seeking only the best and most honest for her students. She encourages sexual experimentation but embroils her young students in her relationships with two fellow teachers. And she fatally involves one young girl in her unquestioning attraction to 1930's fascism.

Nixon is assisted by a splendid supporting cast. Ritchie  Coster conveys both the sleaze and the self-knowledge of Brodie's art-teacher former lover. John Pankow  exudes the meekness and conventionality of Gordon Lowther, her gentle and meek lover. Lisa Emery  is suitably stern as Miss Mackay, the headmistress. And Betsy Hogg, Halley Wegryn Gross and Sarah Steele  are convincing as three of her loyal students. The direction by Scott Elliott is nuanced and precise, if a bit plodding.

Best of all the supporting actors is Zoe Kazan, a recent Yale graduate and a granddaughter of the legendary director Elia Kazan, as Sandy, the student who goes from idolizing Brodie to betraying her - for less-than-selfless motives. Kazan creates a finely etched portrait of a young woman ruled by contradictions, just as her mentor is.

One caveat - not all the Scottish accents (including Nixon's) are always as successful and authentic as they might be, and the awareness of occasionally strained attempts at verisimilitude sometimes diminishes the drama.

Jean Brodie is, as she is called, "very guilty and very innocent-the illusionist creates his own reality." And for most of the evening's nearly two and three quarter hours, Nixon and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie succeed in creating a stage illusion that is both moving and real, and that highlights the contradictions that inhabit us all. For aren't all of us, in the end, both magnificent and ridiculous?