THEATRE / From Hampstead . . . to Broadway: Harold Pinter and Tony Kushner in New York; Caryl Churchill's 'The Skriker' in London

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FROM THE co-billing of Christopher Plummer and Jason Robards in the Broadway revival of Pinter's No Man's Land, there is no guessing who is playing what - Spooner the apologetic visitor, or Hirst the masterful householder. But if, like me, you take these two characters to be alternative versions of the same man, paying the respective price of worldly success and failure, then mutual resemblance is as important as contrast. In the case of Paul Eddington and Pinter himself in last year's West End production, it was inconceivable that they had begun as the same personality. That was one way of doing it; but perhaps the ideal would be a film with one actor playing both roles. In the meanwhile, New York offers a performance by two massively accomplished old heavyweights, each capable of stepping into the other's shoes.

You can guess who is who from the fact that Robards strides on in patent leather shoes while Plummer shuffles after him in dilapidated trainers. As Spooner, Plummer reaps a starting advantage as a heroic actor in low-status disguise. With wings of hair sprouting from a balding pate and a once- snappy sports jacket buttoned to exaggerate the creases, he is an image of Bohemian affectation at its last gasp. Hogging the scene in the process of self-effacement, he holds your attention with flashes of malice and power held in reserve.

As Hirst, Robards has a waiting game of his own to play. It takes the form of a rigidly precise alcoholic ritual - juggling with the glass, filling it with a flourish and carrying it carefully as if on the deck of a rolling ship, emptying it and decisively slamming it down while grimacing with nausea at this latest insult to the digestive system - every move being that of a drunk proving he is in full control, up to the moment when he confesses, 'There's a gap in me, I can't fill it', and seizes the whisky decanter like a feeding bottle.

This, in short, is a partnership of great force and sensitivity. It is also funnier than any English performance I have seen, as it takes Pinter's own parody of the English clubland idiom and subjects it to the North American mockery of Plummer's la-di-da vowels and Robards' huntin', shootin' and horsewhippin' body language. Elsewhere, David Jones's production is unusually evocative of England, perhaps in defiance of the show's environment. But even without the filth and racket of Times Square it would be a pleasure to watch David Jenkins's set unfolding into a long vista of a Hampstead garden on a misty day.

Ever since Giorgio Strehler's masterly revival of Corneille's L'Illusion Comique in the mid-1980s, translations of this magical tour de force have been going the rounds. One of the earliest (1988) was by Tony Kushner, but it has taken the Broadway success of Angels in America to bring Kushner's The Illusion into New York.

It is, as he says, 'freely adapted'. Corneille wrote the piece, in which a magician gives a father a lesson in parenthood by conjuring up visions of his long-lost son, to defend the stage against its clerical enemies. With that danger removed, Kushner has re- drafted the play as a spell to protect the theatre from the penalties of over-familiarity. Gone are the Cornelian scenic order, the fusion of classical and commedia convention, the verse formalities, and some of the best narrative strokes (for example, the appearance of the son, Calisto, as an actor sharing the box-office take, just after being apparently stabbed to death). Instead we have a mock-heroic comedy involving new as well as original characters and episodes, and focusing (as Corneille does not) on the figure of the magician Alcandre as the hero: a showman-shaman, part mountebank, part priest, in whom all aspects of the theatre meet.

With its disappearing tricks, and the transformation of Alcandre's noisome grotto into a brightly antiseptic stage for Calisto's adventures, David Esbjornson's production is strong on magic. Performances - typified by Rob Campbell's Calisto and Cynthia Nixon as a string of his girlfriends - are in the virile, upfront style often found among American actors essaying a classic and not believing a word of it.

The exception is Rocco Sisto, whose Alcandre first materialises from the dust as a thundering demon, then works through an amazing repertoire of giggling, crafty, manipulative, businesslike and philosophic attitudes towards his client (John Vennema) from whom he finally extracts a tear. 'This jewel,' he says, taking it in his fingers, 'for this atom of remorse, for this

little globe . . . I erect the rickety carpentry of my illusions . . . to see your granite heart soften, just a bit.' There speaks the artist who launched America's stone angels into flight.

My brief respects to Laughter on the 23rd Floor, the latest instalment in Neil Simon's stage autobiography, chronicling his arrival as a cub scriptwriter on the Sid Caesar Show in the early 1950s. Jerry Zaks's production has prompted some local sniping at Simon for alleged backsliding and substituting gags for comedy. But, given the fact that his cast consists of a team of Jewish, Russian and Irish one- line merchants pumping out their wares at the behest of a manic boss (Nathan Lane), it is hard to see what else the author could have done. Set at the time of the McCarthy hearings, the comedy is rooted in political history, and structurally it is as solidly built as a tank. The gags are funny. I hope to see it over here.

Over here, meanwhile, Caryl Churchill's The Skriker has sprung up like a magic mushroom: unwholesome, hypnotic and born in the dark. Almost 20 years ago, in Vinegar Tom, Churchill dismissed witchcraft as a means of demonising social outcasts. In the present piece, she willingly immerses herself in those same superstitions in telling the tale of a ravenous underworld spirit - the title ghoul - who selects two girls and embarks on a shape- changing pursuit of her prey.

The essence of this piece is its impersonality. It is there to let the ferocity of ancient folklore loose in the modern world: not to question or interpret anything. Beyond supplying the narrative, Churchill's contribution to the stage event is not the most conspicuous; and I think the 'magical language' she has devised for the Skriker - punning sentence mutation reminiscent less of James Joyce than of Professor Stanley Unwin - is a flop.

Otherwise, this is a spellbinding event. In Les Waters's production, human and supernatural action is simultaneous, the girls (Sandy McDade and Jacqueline Defferary) conversing as malignant fairies hang from the ceiling or uncoil between them: Bosch-like grotesques on tree-branch stilts, macabre dancers, dwarfs with dazzling hair. Thanks to Annie Smart's design - a small white box inside a large white one - Ian Spink's dancers can inhabit the two levels of action, forming group compositions in which the figures, however physically close, remain isolated, as in a Balthus painting. The catholic, pathos-free atmosphere is also echoed in Judith Weir's wind and percussion music, which has the unearthly jauntiness of the Irish countryside.

Kathryn Hunter, in an astonishing performance even for this protean artist, arrives in the Skriker's own spider-like form, and then embarks on an inexhaustible series of transformations, as an outcast child, raucous American, ungainly Christmas-tree fairy, gentleman caller, hobbling night-walker; switching between imploring supplication and malevolent triumph, always within the limits of the temporary character she happens to have assumed. The voice rasps, cajoles, mocks. It sounds ancient, and bottomlessly evil. Once heard, never forgotten.

New York: 'No Man's Land', Roundabout, 869 8400. 'The Illusion', Classic Stage Company, 677 4210. 'Laughter on the 23rd Floor', Richard Rodgers, 307 4100. All nos 0101 212-.

London: 'The Skriker', Cottesloe, 071-928 2252.

(Photograph omitted)