- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Sarah Marshall is one of Washington’s most cherished actors, giving audiences memorable theater moments with the indelibly off-kilter approach she brings to the characters she portrays. But her broad, beseeching attempts to be endearing as the Scottish boarding school teacher Jean Brodie are imposing for all the wrong reasons.

The title role in Jay Presson Allen’s “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” is juicy and meant for a diva. Vanessa Redgrave, Maggie Smith, Zoe Caldwell and, most recently, Fiona Shaw (who appeared in 1998 in a revised version of the play that Studio Theatre is also using for its production) have put their larger-than-life stamps on the blithely arty and breathtakingly self-centered teacher who instructs a group of young girls on how to become Miss Brodie Mini-Mes.

For her novel of the same name, Muriel Spark based the character on Christina Kay, a charismatic teacher she experienced in the 1930s at age 11. The impressionable Miss Spark was enchanted by the stories of Miss Kay’s travels abroad, her command of poetry and her willingness to expose her students to theater, concerts and films.

Her girls were “the creme de la creme,” a catchphrase Miss Brodie uses to describe her pupils — who could not help but become exceptional young women simply because they were under her tutelage. Indeed, Miss Brodie is so sure of her impeccable taste that she predestines her students, saying that the lovely Jenny Gray (Elizabeth Chomko) will become an artist’s muse, while the plainer, observant Sandy Stranger (Sarah Grace Wilson) is better suited for a life behind the scenes.

Egotism and charisma drive the character of Miss Brodie, and the role needs an actress who is more a force of nature than an everyday human being. Miss Marshall appears miscast in the role, vacillating between eccentric largesse and a palpable feeling of discomfort, as if the character’s clothes don’t fit.

There also is a desperate tendency to play to the audience, telegraphing jokes and accompanying lines with eye rolling and winking.

If anything, Miss Brodie is confident in her abilities as a teacher, cultural arbiter and dedicated sensualist. In fact, her confidence brings about her downfall, as Miss Brodie steps beyond her bounds and starts giddily glorifying fascism and Mussolini to her pupils. At this point, she’s not an exceptional teacher, but foolish and dangerous.

However, very little of Miss Brodie’s sway is conveyed in director Joy Zinoman’s distractingly busy production, which is fraught not only with the relentless to-ing and fro-ing of actors, but also with so much back-and-forth hauling of scenery that the stage resembles an airport on Thanksgiving weekend. Daniel Conway’s set, nevertheless, is a handsome and baronial two-level structure that serves both as the boarding school and the convent where one of Miss Brodie’s former charges hides from the world.

Without the central magnetism of Miss Brodie, the play loses its focus and becomes a rather fragmented and slightly tawdry tale of an out-of-control teacher and her wayward pupils. Sandy’s seduction of art teacher Teddy Lloyd (David Adkins) seems petty and mercenary rather than a baleful attempt to break from Miss Brodie’s influence, while the rash act of stuttering wallflower Mary Macgregor (Ellen Warner) barely registers a blip.

An unshakably confident performance by Catherine Flye as Miss MacKay, the stern headmistress , and the gentle musicality of Richard Stirling as a timid music teacher are the show’s sole anchors.

With “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” Studio presents not a teacher in her prime, but a woman who uses Silly Putty to mold young minds.

**

WHAT: “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” by Jay Presson Allen

WHERE: Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW

WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Through April 15.

TICKETS: $32 to $52

PHONE: 202/332-3300

MAXIMUM RATING:FOUR STARS


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