THEATRE / Same old South, hot new play

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THE ONLY problem with 900 Oneonta is its title: hard to remember, understand or pronounce. It turns out - late in the evening - to be an address: the street-number of a posh mansion in Louisiana whose doors and windows hang at crazy, sloping angles, as do most of the inhabitants. They have names like Dandy, Tiger, Persia and Burning Jewel and they are rotten.

Dandy is the patriarch, oil-rich, feisty and outspoken. That is, he insults everybody, especially his family who are absolutely dependent on him. 'There's going,' he taunts, 'to be some bizarre stipulations in my will.' Everything points to a confrontation between Dandy and Tiger, his favourite grandson: a re-run of the star scene in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with the difference that this Big Daddy knows he is dying and is baiting his relatives on that hook. Tiger is crisply characterised as 'a dope addict living with a nigger whore'. It turns out that he was sexually abused by his mother, which seems fair enough as she was sexually abused by her father. Neither revelation is much of a surprise. Along with the lusts of Tennessee Williams and the racial tensions of William Faulkner goes the greed of Lillian Hellman's Little Foxes. It's the same old South.

There's also a transplanted touch of O'Neill's New England, what with daughter Persia emerging in her nightgown to mope around on morphine, and to be greeted by her children with the kind of exasperated contempt that the boys of Long Day's Journey never quite summoned up.

David Beaird (and how do you pronounce him?) has claimed that his play is partly autobiographical, but he should have little difficulty facing his dear ones in the future. It never feels like a slice of his or anyone else's real life. It seems instead like a spoof of every overheated family drama in the American repertoire. On this level, it starts funny and gets funnier. Even more to its credit, once accepted as comic it can be taken with increasing seriousness. It even, except when the author explicitly insists on it, stands up as an image of America, complacent about its past achievements and ripe for takeover.

Beaird, who directs his own script, is a superlative technician in both hats. Having lured his audience in on a promise of mint-julep languor, he accelerates tempo, tightens screws, and lands surprise after surprise, none of them resistible and most of them sprung them like perfect traps. He has tremendous cheek. Tiger arrives just in time to give the old man an unsuccessful kiss of life: an action which immediately places him on a higher moral, and even practical, plane than anyone else on stage. Dandy's demise, which could be a terrific miscalculation, is actually a kiss of life on its own account. Leland Crooke's Dandy, excellent when not shouting, shouts 70 per cent of the time. The play runs more smoothly without him.

Ben Daniels gives Tiger a lot more style and conviction than doomed golden studs usually get, and there is strong work from Susan Tracy, Angela Bruce and Paul Chapman. The driving force though is second grandson Gitlo, a 'normal Joe' in a family of monsters, and the character for whom the author has the least respect. (The one for whom he has the most is the local minister.) He is mocked by his grandpa, threatened by his brother ('I'm going to put you out of my misery'), and demolished by the family's black maid ('I changed your diapers, so it must be partly my fault that you turned out like you did'). In Jon Cryer's delirious performance he starts out understandably twitchy, and progresses into an ecstatic dance of self-abasement; he will submit to anything in order to safeguard his inheritance. With him in its sights the play transcends its immediate forebears and joins hands with such classic ballets of cupidity as Volpone. It has no truck with compassion but it never succumbs to contempt.

Imogen Stubbs makes an attractive, tomboyish and ultimately moving Saint Joan. That sounds simplistic but the performance does not offer a huge variety of mood. Neither, though, does the role, and the only fault I can hesitantly find with Stubbs is that in the trial she goes for downtrodden-in- shackles, at the expense of what her judges call her 'pert answers'. Shaw's play remains not as overwhelming as one would like, but not dismissible either. Twice it touches greatness: in Rheims Cathedral, when Joan's allies severally desert her for respectable-sounding reasons, and (against received opinion) in the Epilogue where they do it all over again. Stubbs's Joan is at her finest here, triumphant in rejection; and she makes a good stab too at the booby-trapped recantation speech, scuppered when heavenly music creeps in to underline the ecstatic bits. This is a rare gaffe in Gale Edwards' clear, cool and handsome production; it takes the play on its merits as a debating-piece but also manages to squeeze in some moments of spectacle, generally glimpsed going unobtrusively by somewhere at the back of the stage. Prize supporting performances are Ken Bones's smooth and brainy Warwick, Peter Jeffrey's chillingly kind Inquisitor, and Jasper Britton's uninhibited grotesque of a Dauphin; special mention for David Daker's de Stogumber, the bigot who awakes too late and whose private tragedy is the inevitable counterpart to Joan's public one.

An alternative title for Shaw's play might be The Miracle Worker, appropriated some decades later by the American William Gibson for his account of the young deaf- and-blind Helen Keller and her rough but charitable awakening at the hands (and I do mean the hands) of novice teacher and orphanage graduate Annie Sullivan. In this revival, both teacher and pupil got cheers at the curtain. Without wishing to denigrate either Jenny Seagrove's Annie or Catherine Holman's ferocious Helen, I found this suspect.

The audience was basking in the reflected glory of an unambiguously happy ending that actually happened. Whether it happened quite as neatly and theatrically as it does in the play is another matter; even as the lump rose obediently in my throat I questioned my own response. The early scenes, sketching in Helen's blinkered Southern family, are a chore by any reckoning, the actors trudging through the dialogue as if they had never encountered it before (which does not mean they sound spontaneous). I dreamt of having them worked over by David Beaird. Things improve considerably when words give way to gestures and grunts: to Helen's violence and Annie's responses in kind; the first time the governess thumped her charge, a houseful of frustrated parents erupted in approval.

Comic juggling is an honourable tradition; a few years ago one of its practitioners kicked Sugar Babies briefly into the land of the living. As an inflexible rule, the better the juggling the better the clowning; only the four Flying Karamazov Brothers, however, have made an evening out of it. In Juggle and Hyde they erupt onto a stage full of cardboard boxes, in some of which they hide and some of which they juggle. They also toss about traditional clubs, Japanese fans, and xylophone mallets, the last while actually playing the xylophone; somehow the sticks always land on the notes. On the first night their repertoire extended to a dead fish, a pizza on a plate, and a very wobbly jelly. Their final eight- handed routine, constantly shifting positions and rhythms, is breathtakingly beautiful. Their delivery of lines is rather lightweight. I do not suggest that either they or you should worry about this.

'900 Oneonta': Old Vic (928 7616). 'Saint Joan': Strand (930 8800). 'Miracle Worker': Comedy (867 1045). 'Juggle and Hyde': Criterion (839 4488). All 071-.

Irving Wardle is on holiday.

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