- Associated Press - Thursday, March 31, 2016

NEW YORK (AP) - Posters for the new Broadway revival of “The Crucible” feature a photo of Saoirse Ronan, looking absolutely witchy as Abigail Williams. She’s awfully good in it, but the real sorcery is delivered by Ben Whishaw.

The English actor is astounding in Arthur Miller’s classic tale about the Salem witch trials. He plays doomed farmer John Proctor and holds nothing back, going from slightly arrogant to flustered to full-out broken over the course of the play, a master stroke by a 35-year-old making his Broadway debut.

The revival, which opened Thursday at the Walter Kerr Theatre with Dutch visionary director Ivo van Hove at the wheel, is more uneven, lacking the singular, brilliant focus of van Hove’s earlier revival this season of Miller’s “A View From the Bridge.”

Van Hove has stripped the play down and made cuts, but he’s not removed most props this time. Or shoes. The action takes place in a modern but indeterminate time, with sober, black and white costumes by Wojciech Dziedzic that would look fine in the winter J. Crew catalog. The young women are dressed like schoolgirls, with gray skirts and socks.

The setting is a charmless school room with a blackboard, heavy chairs and harsh fluorescent lights, which also serves as the courtroom and Proctor’s home. Old items - a boiling black pot that looks like it was swiped from a production of “Macbeth” - share the stage with modern coffee carafes and stirrers you’d find at any office. Philip Glass added to a soundscape that goes from choir voices to industrial hums to gentle violin music.

Ronan and Whishaw lead a cast that also includes a wonderful Sophie Okonedo as Proctor’s wife, Ciaran Hinds as a truly fearsome deputy governor, Tavi Gevinson as a slippery Mary Warren, Jason Butler Harner as an unyielding reverend and Jim Norton as a feisty elderly farmer. Bill Camp is truly excellent as a church leader who, much too late, realizes what his fire-and-brimstone approach has wreaked.

Van Hove’s stripped-down approach does starkly illuminate the paranoia and descent into madness as a small town turns on itself. But the director also seems to put his thumb on the side of sorcery, with a scene of a girl hovering in the air, storms crashing through windows and that blackboard brilliantly turning into a projection screen for swirling otherworldly symbols.

It’s a curious step for a play written to expose the hollowness of the witch-hunting McCarthy era. If there is indeed witchyness afoot in Salem - and not just gossip or self-interested accusations - it seems to undercut those heading to the gallows for honor’s sake.

Other showy touches include over-the-top makeup that turns the Proctors into looking like half-dead zombies at the end, and a dog that resembles a wolf appearing at the top of Act Three. At one preview, the hound clearly followed a trail of treats but then stood center stage, paused and seemed to peer into the audience, questioningly. (It was a performance better than those delivered by actors in some of the smaller roles.)

This is a production that can feel somewhat cluttered, which is a strange thing for a van Hove show. But there’s no denying it is a brilliant debut for Whishaw. He has magic in spades.


Follow Mark Kennedy on Twitter at https://twitter.com/KennedyTwits

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