The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, a CurtainUp review CurtainUp

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A CurtainUp Review
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

I was quite strongly influenced by a teacher. . .a Miss Jean Brodie in her prime— Sister Helena, in response to a question about some particular person who might have been an influence on her having written a hugely successful book, The Transfiguration of the Common Place. That teacher in her prime told the other little girls in her charge "I am in the business of putting old heads on young shoulders, and all my pupils are the crème de la crème."

Cynthia Nixon
Cynthia Nixon and the Brodie girls: Halley Wegryn Gross, Sarah Steele, Zoe Kazan, Betsy Hogg
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Between 1957 and her death at age eighty-eight, earlier this year, Scottish born Dame Muriel Spark turned out some twenty slender but never slight novels. Jay Presson Allen, who adapted the most famous Sparkian creation, the eccentric school teacher Jean Brodie, for stage, film as well as a television series, also died this year. She was eighty-four. These two prolific writers are gone but the charismatic yet dangerous Jean Brodie lives on, with the latest actress to take on this challenging anti-heroine being Cynthia Nixon.

Young theater goers will have heard about but not seen Vanessa Redgrave playing Jean Brodie when the Allen's stage adaptation opened in London or Zoe Caldwell during its Broadway run. But Maggie Smith’s Oscar winning film portrayal is still a popular video renter, so Nixon is bound to face comparisons with Dame Maggie, especially who also played a similarly outrageous yet charming character, Peter Shaffer's Lettice Douffet in his play Lettice and Lovage.

Superb as Dame Maggie's Jean Brodie was, Nixon is a sensitive actress, to wit, last season's Tony for her performance in Rabbit Hole. Granted, she initially seems too pretty and mannered and without quite the authentically Scotch rolling r's for her "girrrls." But ultimately she brings the needed complexities to her interpretation of the role and makes it her own.

Nixon's Miss Brodie isn't so showy that the play is basically a one-woman tour-de-force, as the film was. This also seems to be part of director Scott Elliott intent. To insure that the forty-year-old play still comes off as being in its prime, Elliott could have used Jay Presson Allen's rewrite of her original adaptation. It added more music and art of the period and hewed closer to the more intricately structured novel in which Brodie, though dominating everything, is one in a gallery of fully developed fascinating characters. That adaptation had its world premiere in DC earlier this year (see link below), but Elliott has opted to use the original script to bring out the crème-de-la-crème richness of all these characters.

The novel's constant back and forth shifts in time probably wouldn't work as well on stage than the play's more straightforward arc. This structure nevetheless remains true to Spark's story of the teacher's relationship with a special group of girls she charms and manipulates into supporting her unorthodox views of history, life choices and love. The flashback format is framed by an interview with a Nun named Sister Helena in connection with her hugely successful The Transfiguration of the Common Place. It's a tried and true device that works even though its built-in surprise ending is hardly going to come as a totally unexpected revelation to anyone — which is probably why Spark never couched any of her revelations as O.Henry style twists.

Nixon's Brodie is not so much a magnetic powerhouse figure as a pretty but vulnerable woman who knows how to charm the socks off these young girls as well as Marcia Blaine School's only two males — Teddy Lloyd (Ritchie Coster who's charismatic and sexy even without the stray gold forelock and missing arm of the novel's Lloyd), the art teacher and Gordon Lowther (John Pankow, embodying the not so attractive but very ripe for the picking bachelor), the music teacher. Despite her uniqueness, this Jean Brodie is less larger than life than a defiantly individualistic variation of a whole generation of women. Teddy Lloyd who, though so smitten with her that every portrait he paints ends up looking like her, is clear-eyed enough to see Brodie as part of a group of women spawned by the first World War: "There is an army of these ladies in Edinburgh—war-bereaved spinsters. . .It is simply that they do not attempt, like Jean to teach in schools of traditional character" (In the book where these comments come from the authorial work, Spark expands on this by describing these women's social welfare, feminist activities).

Besides the excellent Coster and Pankow as the two men with whom Brodie has complicated romantic relationships, there's terrific work by Lisa Emery as Miss Markham, the uptight headmistress of the conservative school where the unconventional Brodie is a square peg in a round hole, but determined to resist any attempts to oust her. There's a terrific scene in which Mackay, thinking she's finally got the means to fire Brodie (highly romantic letters to Lowther), summons Brodie and Lowther. But Brodie not only identifies the damning evidence as the literary fantasies of her girls, but calls Mackay's accusations of undue influence ridiculous and libelous. The scene is a triumph for Nixon as well as Emery and Pankow.

The girls are all nicely delineated, with Betsy Hogg especially delightfu as awkward Mary MacGregor. But it's Zoe Kazan as Sandy who has the most psychologically intriguing role and she runs all the way home with it.

A scene hinting at Brodie's willingness to come on to a girl sexually when it suits her purpose, struck me as gratuitous Elliott touch. However, except for this and a somewhat over-extended nude scene, he sticks to the stage directions which state that the play requires no fancy props and so every scene is played out in Derek McLane's high-ceilinged schoolroom and the only props used to illustrate Miss Brodie's art passions and her ill-conceived love affair with Mussolini and his Fascistis and Franco's Spanish regime are poster sized pictures taped to the large chalkboard. It's left to Eric Becker to set the production in its period with his costumes, which he does most effectively. The pacing overall has slow spots and despite the services of dialect coach Stephen Gabis, the accents tend to at times make the dialogue difficult to hear.

I purposely didn't re-read my somewhat yellowed paperback copy of the novel until after I saw this production. The novel still outshines the play in its style and depth, but seeing the play made the characters jump off the page as I re-read it the next day. Perhaps, the movie and television series and this and other versions of Spark's by now semi-classic story have made Miss Brodie and her girls forever fascinating, whether on page or stage stage.

Dame Sparks' extensive output included twenty novels, beginning with The Comforters in 1957 and ending with The Finishing School in 2004. Most were successful but The Prime of Jean Brodie was her crème-de-la-crème. Her life before she became a writer included working for British intelligence. A public feud with her son (a convert to Judaism as she was to Roman Catholicism) adds to a story that would make a fascinating drama. Sounds like something, right up the New Group's alley!

To read a review of the world premiere of Jay Presson Allen's revision of her original play in DC go here.

Jay Presson Allen's adaptation of 1962 Muriel Spark
Director: Scott Elliott
Cast: Cynthia Nixon in the title role; also Emily Bicks, Ritchie Coster, Lisa Emery, Betsy Hogg, Zoe Kazan, Caroline Lagerfelt, John Pankow, Caity Quinn Matthew Rauch, Sarah Steele and Halley Wegryn Gross.
Sets: Derek McLane
Costumes: Eric Becker
Lights: Jason Lyons
Sound: Daniel Baker
Original Music: Tom Kochan
Dialect Coach: Stephen Gabis
Running Time: 2 1/2 hours including a 10-minute intermission
The New Group, Acorn Theater, 410 West 42nd (212) 279-4200,
From 9/20/06 to 11/11/06--extended before even opening to 12/09/06; opening 10/09/06
Monday—Saturday at 8:00 PM, with matinees on Saturday at 2:00 PM
Tickets $56.25.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on October 6th performance

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