Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie (The SOB Review) - Acorn Theatre, New York, NY

The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie (The SOB Review) – Acorn Theatre, New York, NY

**** (out of ****)

Imagine a play set in the past about a charming, eloquent teacher at a single-sex British school who sets out to mold young, gifted minds. One of those students is particularly vulnerable and diffident, starving for the teacher's attention. Yet during the course of the story, there are revelations about dark secrets and inappropriate sexual teacher-student contact and their impact on the scholars.

You’d be forgiven if you thought the previous paragraph was ripped from a synopsis of The History Boys, recently departed from the Broadway stage. But it neatly describes a spellbinding play written nearly forty years ago: Jay Presson Allen’s pre-World War II drama The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie, now given a hauntingly beautiful revival by The New Group under Scott Elliott’s exquisite direction.

Expertly filling the oversized shoes left by Zoe Caldwell (who won a Tony originating the role on Broadway) and Dame Maggie Smith (who won an Oscar for her screen portrayal) is Cynthia Nixon in one of her most nuanced, breathtaking performances ever. Nixon is mesmerizing as teacher Jean Brodie, whose romanticized visions of how the world should be ordered are at once both gorgeous and grotesque. Initially, Brodie revels in regaling her students on her libidinous “prime” all while feeding their fragile egos as the school’s “crème de la crème.”

Brodie clearly favors one student, the beautiful Jenny (played with innocence by Halley Wegryn Gross), on whom she pins her hopes that fellow teacher and onetime lover Teddy Lloyd (Ritchie Coster) -- who is married with children -- will someday deflower her. All that favoritism results in a severe backlash from another student, Sandy (the brilliant Zoe Kazan in a stunning, breakthrough performance), who undermines Brodie’s plans by becoming Lloyd’s muse, and in the process threatens Brodie’s long tenure with the school.

Throughout the course of the play, Nixon expertly peels back each layer of Brodie to reveal a shockingly fascist and sanctimonious soul whose fascination with Benito Mussolini, Adolph Hitler and Francisco Franco imperils not only her position, but also one of her students. Through Brodie, we see how easily impressionable minds can be swept up by charismatic leaders in following a perilous course, and in these dangerous times, the allegory remains every bit as valid today.

The ensemble in this excellent production is nothing short of exceptional. And a special nod must be made to Jason Lyons’ subtle lighting design, which helped punctuate each of the varied scenes against Derek McLane’s singular classroom set.

Thankfully, The New Group announced last week that the show has been extended through December 9. The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie is one of the best plays I've seen this year.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

Click here for tickets.
Related Stories:

Prime Time Tonight Off-Broadway (October 9, 2006)
Cynthia Nixon Lands Prime Role (June 8, 2006)

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