Volume 76, Number 24 | November 1 - 7, 2006

Villager Theater Review

The miseducation of Miss Jean Brodie

THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE
Written by Jay Presson Allen
Directed by Scott Elliott
Through December 9th
The Acorn Theatre at Theatre Row
410 W. 42nd St.
(212-279-4200; thenewgroup.org)

Carol Rosegg
Cynthia Nixon leads her “crème de la crème” astray in “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.”

By Scott Harrah

“The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” Jay Presson Allen’s classic stage adaptation of Muriel Spark’s novel about an eccentric, delusional Scottish schoolteacher in 1930s Edinburgh, does not seem at all dated since it was first mounted in London with Vanessa Redgrave in the lead in 1966. The New Group’s current, nearly sold-out production on Theatre Row, directed by Scott Elliot, is the first American revival of the show since Zoe Caldwell’s Tony-winning take on the Jean Brodie character wowed Broadway audiences in 1968.

It is no surprise, then, that Cynthia Nixon — who won a Tony this year for her outstanding performance as a mother grieving the loss of her son in “Rabbit Hole” — had proverbial big theatrical shoes to fill when she accepted the difficult, iconic role of Brodie. With her colorful dresses, red hair, and fair features, Nixon seems as naïve and vulnerable as her impressionable students. Speaking in a brogue that sounds distantly Scottish with a curious touch of Eastern European tones, Nixon may not have been the ideal choice to play an unconventional woman obsessed with art and with an odd admiration for fascist leaders like Mussolini and Franco and even Hitler. However, one simply cannot disparage Nixon’s ambitious efforts to redefine the role for 21st century audiences, as she approaches it with passion and determination.

The rest of the cast manages to bring the 40-year-old drama back to life, with only a few minor changes. Lisa Emery, as Miss McKay, the shrill, “by the book,” authoritative headmistress of the school, is exquisite. Equally effective are Ritchie Coster as art teacher Teddy Lloyd, and John Pankow as the diffident music teacher Gordon Lowther (with whom Miss Brodie begins a romance). Caroline Lagerfelt nicely portrays a nun, Sister Helena, author of a recent bestseller. The nun tells the story of Jean Brodie in flashbacks to American reporter Mr. Perry (Matthew Rauch).

However, it is the girls in the school, loving christened by Brodie as her “crème de la crème,” that truly add the necessary texture to propel playwright Allen’s elegant narrative forward. Some of the standouts include Zoe Kazan as Sandy, the strangely precocious schoolgirl who eventually blossoms into a conniving teenager. Sandy later begins an illicit affair with art teacher Teddy Lloyd after sitting for him as a model. Kazan perhaps has the best grasp of her character of anyone on stage, for it is Sandy who ultimately tests Brodie’s unorthodox pedagogy and ideals and exposes her teacher’s many delusions. Betsy Hogg, as the cute but emotionally frail and misguided Mary MacGregor, gives a marvelously poignant performance. Halley Wegryn Gross as Jenny, and Sarah Steele as the sarcastic Monica, are both noteworthy as well.

A few things that have been added on to this revival seem unnecessary. For example, Sandy’s nude scene with Teddy Lloyd (not seen in the movie or the original Broadway production) is a bit gratuitous. This is a story that needs no tampering, for “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” like its modern-day British schoolhouse counterpart “The History Boys,” is a rich, intense drama that has many trenchant things to say about education and its true role in our lives. This is that rare, thought-provoking play that dissects everything we thought we knew about the foundations of learning and stays in one’s mind long after the curtain goes down.

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