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"Miss Brodie" Is Still in Its Prime
Cynthia Nixon. Photo by Carol Rosegg
"The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie"
Directed by Scott Elliot
The Acorn at Theatre Row
410 West 42nd St. between 9th and 10th avenues
Mon., Wed.-Fri. 8 p.m., Tues. 7 p.m., 2 & 8 p.m.
$56.25-$66.25 (212) 279-4200
Closes Dec. 9, 2006
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons Nov. 11, 2006
The influence of good teachers has been celebrated in books and movies many times. The darker side of pedagogy is less frequently explored. But when it is, the result can be powerful. Witness "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie."
Based on Muriel Sparks' 1961 novel, Jay Presson Allen's stage adaptation was first produced in 1966, turned into a movie in 1969 and is now revived by The New Group at Theatre Row. "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" tells the story of Jean Brodie, who teaches at a conservative girls' school in Edinburgh between the two world wars.
Jean Brodie is feisty, dedicated and inspiring. She thrills her students with stories of her trip to Italy and her lover, Hugh, who fell on Flanders field in World War I. She calls the young girls the crème de la crème. Her mission is to fill them with a fervent love for goodness, beauty and truth. She is also a cunning, manipulative and egotistical tyrant who admires people like Hitler and Mussolini.
The play, which slowly and relentlessly unveils the true nature of Miss Brodie's character, is told as a flash-back, as Sister Helena (Caroline Lagerfelt), a former member of Brodie's coterie and now an acclaimed writer, is interviewed by a newspaper reporter, Mr. Perry (Matthew Rauch). Miss Brodie, in her prime, is seen after she has dropped Teddy Lloyd (Ritchie Coster), an artist and the father of five, and as she is in the process of acquiring the fealty of a new man, the timid music teacher, Gordon Lowther (John Pankow). But she is headed for a fall.
Not surprisingly, the role of Jean Brodie earned a Tony for Zoe Caldwell in the 1966 Broadway production and an Academy Award for Maggie Smith in the 1969 film. Dixon, who won a Tony in last season's "Rabbit Hole," may well set her sights for another with this performance.
"The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie," with its frank portrayal of adolescent sexuality and cynical look at a much sentimentalized profession, made quite a stir back in the sixties. But by 21st century standards "Miss Brodie" is quite tame. Director Scott Elliot solves this problem by adding a nude scene between Lloyd and one of Brodie's brighter students, Sandy ( Zoe Kazan) to make the play more cutting-edge.
In all honesty, this is one case in which nudity is actually appropriate onstage, although Elliot certainly has 23-year old Kazan remain in the buff far longer than is actually necessary to make his point of ravished youth (also intensified by the repeated exchange of a cigarette between the lover and the young lady). This scene works, however, mostly through the fine acting of Kazan, who manages to combine sexiness and plainness, innocence and insight to an extraordinary degree; and Coster who gives the dissolute artist a very human vulnerability.
Lisa Emery delivers a solid performance as Miss Mackay, the straitlaced headmistress looking for a way to do her job and get rid of Brodie; and Pankow as the upright if spineless Lowther, is an excellent contrast to Coster's self-indulgent, dissipated Lloyd.
But it is the delightful young actresses who make up the gaggle of Brodie's followers that give the play its bubbling humor and stinging pathos. Anyone who has ever watched the interactions of schoolgirls first learning about life and love will appreciate the honesty of Sarah Steel, Betsy Hogg and Halley Wegryn Gross in their supporting roles.
Last year "The History Boys" swept the Tonys with a sympathetic portrayal of an inspiring teacher who also happened to enjoy fondling young boys. "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" shows the dirty truth of what can happen when people in authority abuse children.
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