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Saturday, October 21, 2006

I Blame Scott Elliott
Who should I trust: trophy cabinets or my own lying eyes and ears? Since I moved to New York 18 months ago, I’ve seen two shows directed by Jerry Zaks—a man with a good reputation and four Tonys—and both were dreadful. The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial and Losing Louie were inert, old-fashioned, and badly cast. So, it’s hard for me to have a terribly high opinion of Mr. Zaks.

Similarly, Scott Elliott seems to be a downtown hero, the artistic director of the New Group and Mike Leigh’s anointed American interpreter (though their relationship was stealthily undermined in a New York Observer profile). And yet, the two plays of his that I’ve seen—Abigail’s Party and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie—have been extremely disappointing.

John Doyle isn’t the only director who has a “thing.” In his negative review of Brodie, the Times’ Ben Brantley called Elliott “a director known for eliciting (or forcing) the perversity in chestnuts as conventional as Present Laughter and The Women.”

His productions of Abigail and Brodie have even more in common—both are period pieces with a well-regarded indie actress cast in a huge part around which the entire play constellates. And in both cases, there’s an easily available, much-loved video version of the work—the magnificent original 1977 TV version of Abigail’s Party with Leigh’s ex-partner Alison Steadman as Beverly, and Maggie Smith’s Oscar-winning turn in the movie version of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (though my own favorite version is the late-‘70s TV series with Geraldine McEwan as MJB). They’re also both full of lines that devotees love to quote—“Like Feliciano, Ange? Yeah, he’s good, isn’t he? Sexy!” or “My gerrils are the crème de la crème,” etc.

Elliott seems to be good at physical direction—Jennifer Jason Leigh, who played Beverly in his Abigail’s Party, had the look and the movements down just right—the pantherian swagger, the lust for cigarettes and drinks, her utter exasperation with her stupid yet snobbish, uptight, estate-agent husband, Laurence. If Jennifer Jason Leigh had kept her trap shut and just smoked and danced and tortured the guests, the show would’ve been wonderful—but instead she opened her mouth and out came that unbearable braying. The braying gave no indication that Leigh understood Beverly. Why Beverly took such pleasure in taunting her husband and her neighbors. Why she wanted to humiliate Susan, the upper-middle-class remnant of the sort of people who used to live in the neighborhood before oiks like Laurence and Beverly moved in. Leigh gave no clue why Beverly was so desperate to act like Lady Bountiful in front of Angie and her inarticulate but sexy former-footballer husband. Why was she hee-hawing like a donkey? Alison Steadman brayed to express the pain and rage and shattering disappointment inside the character. Jennifer Jason Leigh brayed because Alison Steadman had brayed. And that’s Scott Elliott’s fault.

When it comes to The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Cynthia Nixon looks right for the part—graceful and glamorous enough to shine like a spot of brilliant color in a gray Northern world. Her passion for the south, for beauty and adventure is alluring. But then she opens her mouth.

The play itself is a bit of a clunker—the flashback structure (essentially the action of the play is the recollection of an aging nun who was once part of the Brodie set) is heavy-handed and clumsy, and it has the most discomfiting nude scene I’ve ever seen. But Miss Jean Brodie, a woman in her prime, an educator, a leader of young women—and a crazy, romantic (in the worst sense), manipulative bitch—is a great character that even the most cack-handed director and the most uncomfortable actress can’t totally fuck up. They came pretty close, though.

Stephen Gabis is credited as the dialect coach (for both shows), and if I were Mr. Gabis, I’d leave the business, because the accents were absolutely, totally, and utterly preposterous. Bourgeois Edinburgh is probably the easiest Scottish accent to assume, and yet the female cast members (the one male actor who had to adopt a brogue did so quite convincingly) were all New Zealand vowels, pinched faces, and strangled sounds. At the intermission, the older couple behind me complained that they couldn’t hear the dialogue. I could barely restrain myself from turning around and yelling, “You lucky bastards!”

So, instead of embodying the characters, the actresses seemed to expend all their efforts on delivering their lines in “the accent.” Consequently, not a single one of them was remotely convincing. Consequently, Miss Brodie was neither charismatic nor demonic; the headmistress of Marcia Blane School for Girls was neither sincere nor scheming, and the girls were likable but very far from the crème de la crème. And, for my money, that’s Scott Elliott’s fault.

Update, Oct. 22: I must quote a lovely line from Maud Newton's take on this Brodie: "Nixon is slight rather than imposing, flirtatious rather than steely, and, were it not for the cast of Brigadoon, she might very well take the award for most ridiculous Scottish accent ever to be affected in the theater district."

Update, Jan. 1, 2007: Thanks to Mark for pointing out an error (now removed) in the original version of this post. Scott Elliott didn't direct Avenue Q, he was a co-producer of the show.

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