Few plays are as close to their subjects as "Amadeus." Peter Shaffer's 1980 Tony Award winner, revived on Broadway under original director Peter Hall, has eerie echoes of its own theme. Mainly that the play's central character, 18th-century composer Antonio Salieri, churns out conventional hits that won't stand the test of time. The play itself is an international success that became an equally celebrated movie. But it's already showing its age and will, in time, be justly forgotten. "Amadeus" explores the clash between the mediocre Salieri and the godlike genius of his young rival, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Peter Hall's production has a similar conflict - between Shaffer's mediocre script on the one hand, and some splendid acting on the other. For while David Suchet's performance as Salieri and Michael Sheen's as Mozart may not be works of divine inspiration, they do work miracles with unpromising material. "Amadeus" begins in Vienna in 1823 when the dying Salieri is setting tongues wagging. His apparently senile ravings suggest that, decades before, he poisoned the great Mozart. Salieri then takes us back to the 1780s, promising to reveal the truth. "Amadeus," then, for all its artistic airs, is at heart an old-fashioned whodunit. As such, it is, like Salieri's music, uninspired but slickly competent. The problem is that it has pretensions to profundity. Shaffer wants it all to add up to a big play about Man, God and Art. But instead of weaving his thoughts into drama, he bludgeons us with windy rhetoric. Good plays embody the writer's thoughts in the actions of the characters. But in "Amadeus," Shaffer has so little faith in our ability to get the point that he underlines it again and again. And he doesn't even manage to match what we're being told with what we're seeing and hearing. Salieri, for example, is supposed to have been a good and generous man before he met Mozart. But because we never see him being good or generous, his conversion has no dramatic impact. Mozart, meanwhile, is written as a stupid and incredibly irritating boy. But every time we hear a snatch of his glorious music in the play, that notion is destroyed. The gap between one and the other is a hole the play never fills. This is Hall's seventh production of "Amadeus," and in some ways, it shows. He seems to have given up on solving its basic problems. Instead, he creates - with the aid of William Dudley's shimmeringly beautiful designs - a smooth machine for the performers. They, in turn, drive it as far away from the brink of melodramatic bombast as they possibly can. Suchet follows such stars as Paul Scofield and Ian McKellen in the role of Salieri, and shows himself worthy of such company. Although he can't avoid the overblown nature of many of his lines, he manages to be at once commanding and skeptical, letting rip when he has to but retaining a wry awareness of his own absurdity. When he has a really well-written scene to play, as in his attempt to seduce Mozart's wife (played by the impressively sharp Cindy Katz), we see how riveting he can be with the right material. In some respects, Sheen is even more impressive because his role is so much sillier. Yet he manages, in the silent details of his hesitations and reactions, to be genuinely moving. Together, they achieve something that Shaffer's play talks about but can't produce: the transformation of mediocrity into art.
An implacable and unjust God, the spirit of genius and the mediocrity of mankind are among the concepts floating through Peter Shaffer's "Amadeus," which reappeared at the Music Box Theatre last night after not having been seen in New York since 1983.
What a wonderfully entertaining piece of work it is, still fresh thanks to changes by Shaffer but now perhaps just a tiny bit gilded.
Set in the rococo world of late 18th-century Vienna, it tells of the great composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, his sad adventures in the court of Emperor Joseph II, and his early death.
There is, of course, a tantalizing but unfounded legend about Mozart possibly having been poisoned by Antonio Salieri, a fashionable but essentially mediocre court composer who, according to the story, killed his talented rival because of envy, despite having surpassed Mozart in fame.
Shaffer paints a picture of Salieri as a man who is furious with God for making the bratty Mozart a genius, while he, who has devoted himself to God's service, is merely a well-connected craftsman.
Ironically, God has made Salieri one of nature's critics. He is not only sharply aware of his own shortcomings but is also the only contemporary capable of recognizing Mozart's genius.
Shaffer provides a deliciously flavored and amusing picture of the Viennese court of the time, and gives us two wonderful, actor-friendly portraits of Salieri and Mozart, the latter seen as an arrogant, scatologically minded child.
The play, directed with exquisite style by Peter Hall, who staged it originally, and with new and brilliant designs by William Dudley, uses a rather different version of the text from its last Broadway showing, which itself varied from the London original.
Shaffer has again titivated it. (For example, we no longer have Mozart bad-mouthing his own first operatic triumph, "Idomeneo.") But the major change is in humanizing the once-demonized Salieri. And Shaffer has almost completely rewritten the final confrontation between him and the dying Mozart.
It is perhaps fairer to Salieri but possibly less fair to the play's dramatic force and balance. I preferred a more wicked, more conniving, and yes, more demonized, Salieri. The two main characters now appear, partly through the performance, to embody the thrust and argument of Shaffer's thesis.
Michael Sheen is fantastic as Mozart. The man has all the makings of a great actor. This Mozart is wild, ridiculous, rebellious, childish and unfettered -- yet all the time Sheen convinces you of the man's brilliance.
David Suchet, known here as Agatha Christie's TV Poirot, is also a fine performer, with a flawless technique that works like clockwork. Even so, he holds back, deliberately perhaps, on the raw spontaneity that electrifies Sheen's Mozart. He is Everyman faced with Genius.
This new production is handsomely acted, particularly by Terence Rigby, as the Italianate Count Orsini-Rosenberg, and David McCallum, who is pitch-perfect as the vague, abstracted Emperor Joseph.
Here is the kind of thoughtful yet immensely enjoyable play that we get far too rarely on Broadway these days.
There are books that are aptly called good reads. Well, "Amadeus" is a good look -- the stage equivalent of a page-turner. I loved it. With reservations. It's not Mozart.
Certain actors seem haloed in heat, even in cold climates. In the less than fiery new revival of Peter Shaffer's ''Amadeus,'' which opened last night at the Music Box Theater, a 30-year-old Welshman named Michael Sheen projects the kind of air-warping waves given off by blacktop in the August sun.
It's not just that in this popular drama's title role, that of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Mr. Sheen is often in a state of manic motion; it's that his body temperature would seem to be several degrees higher than that of anyone else on stage. Watching him trace Mr. Shaffer's conception of a child prodigy grown up into prodigious childishness, you start to appreciate the derivation of the term star. This actor is so luminous it's scary.
New York theatergoers whose memories extend to 1980 might recall a similarly solar performance by another British actor, then little known in the United States, in the very same play. His name was Ian McKellen, and his role was not that played by Mr. Sheen in the current production, which has been directed (as was the original version) by the stage-savvy Peter Hall.
Mr. McKellen portrayed Antonio Salieri, Mozart's politically astute contemporary, rival and, the play has it, nemesis. That part has now been taken on by David Suchet, an accomplished actor who simply doesn't have it in him to blaze, at least not on this occasion.
For better or worse, this leads to a seismic shift in the work's center. And though one regrets to say it, it's mostly for the worse. In spinning a tale from historical gossip previously given dramatic life in Aleksandr Pushkin's playlet and Rimsky-Korsakov's opera, both titled ''Mozart and Salieri,'' Mr. Shaffer had the inspired idea of measuring genius through its impact on an artist who would never possess it. Originally produced in London in 1979 with Paul Scofield as Salieri, the drama was translated into an Oscar-winning 1984 movie directed by Milos Forman and starring F. Murray Abraham. On the stage and on film, ''Amadeus'' belonged squarely to Salieri, a man cancerous with envy and at war with the God who has denied him the gifts he so covets.
Though it is said that Roman Polanski's Mozart ran away with the play in European productions some years ago, this is the first ''Amadeus'' I've seen that lets its title character take over altogether. It could be argued that this is yet another instance of divine injustice. Poor old Salieri; he doesn't even have a play to call his own anymore.
This is partly a consequence of Mr. Shaffer's having rethought Salieri's character over the last two decades and decided that the fellow had too much of the melodrama villain about him. In this rewritten ''Amadeus'' Salieri has a louder conscience, and it leads him to a new scene of openly expressed contrition. Unfortunately, this takes place in the presence of Mr. Sheen's Mozart, who by now is looking into the chasm of his imminent death with such raptness that it's hard to pay attention to what Mr. Suchet is saying.
Known to television audiences as Agatha Christie's self-admiring Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, Mr. Suchet keeps swagger to a minimum here, substituting arch glances to the audience that signal the play's copious ironies. His Salieri is basically the awed onlooker, a witness to the ineffable brilliance of a younger man lacking the Machiavellian skills for survival in courtly Vienna.
He often comes across as something like a docent in a museum, a smoother variation on the tourist-deceiving heroine of Mr. Shaffer's ''Lettice and Lovage,'' though with far less sense of drama. Salieri becomes a lens through which the audience perceives Mozart, like the proverbial cats looking at a king.
This might work better if Salieri didn't have pages-long monologues in which he charts the rise and fall of his and Mozart's fortunes. All the same, the shivery thrill of ''Amadeus'' traditionally came from letting a man who fashions himself as the patron saint of mediocrities finally assume star status. Salieri at last has his chance to strut and fret his hour (well, closer to three hours) upon the stage, and he is determined to make the most of it, starting with his introductory invocation to summon the audience as his confessors.
Mr. Hall's staging plays with the crowd-baiting audacity of this conceit, right down to having the audience reflected in the mirrors of William Dudley's set of ghostly scrims and reflective surfaces, underscored by Paule Constable's crepuscular lighting. Yet there is also an aura of anticlimax throughout. It's evident even in the use of recorded Mozart music (overseen by Matt McKenzie), which has an intrusive abruptness when it should bleed seamlessly into the fabric of the production.
Correspondingly, Mr. Suchet repeatedly passes on opportunities for coups de theatre. The transformation of the aged Salieri of the play's beginning into a robust 31-year-old is underplayed into near nonexistence. And the scene where Salieri, examining scores by Mozart, swoons in reaction to their compositional brilliance -- rendered as a Miltonian fall by Mr. McKellen -- is here a plebeian thud.
There is nothing remotely plebeian about Mr. Sheen's Mozart. Mr. Shaffer has drawn noisy criticism for representing Mozart as a scatological, foulmouthed, father-obsessed creep with a hyena cackle. Yet Mr. Sheen elicits a real poetry from the role, an undulating pattern of shock-provoking goonishness and abject apology that lends a connecting air of compulsion to Mozart's spontaneous art and bad behavior. (Think John McEnroe acting out on a tennis court.)
It is not, however, a good sign when you find yourself marking the minutes when an actor isn't onstage, and there are long stretches unblessed by Mr. Sheen's presence. David McCallum (fondly remembered as the coolest sidekick of 1960's television in ''The Man from U.N.C.L.E.'') offers a splendidly droll portrait of royal fatuity as the Emperor Joseph II, and Cindy Katz brings a refreshing earthiness and pragmatism to Constanze, Mozart's wife, a part usually played as a fluffy, empty-headed kitten.
But the representation of double-dealing politics in imperial Austria starts to seem labored and repetitive without a volcanic Salieri to raise the emotional stakes. Scale down Salieri's villainy, and you sacrifice the guilty satisfactions of watching just how evil banality can be.
It is hard, however, to imagine anyone not shrinking into the shadows before the white-hot Mozart of Mr. Sheen, who recently scored a critical triumph in London in John Osborne's ''Look Back in Anger.'' The perspiration that bedews him here as his character slides toward his early grave has the look of glitter, just as in his earlier scenes the glittering embroidery on his jacket (also designed by Mr. Dudley) seems as organic as sweat. Attention producers: if you're looking for someone to give physical credence to the romantic idea of the flame that consumes itself, Mr. Sheen is definitely your man.
With his wild eyes gaping as he scampers manically about the stage, Michael Sheen's Mozart is like a rabid raccoon in satin breeches. Watching his fevered activities with feigned detachment is the Salieri of David Suchet, a velvet wolf coolly stalking his prey. The rivalry between these two beasts, one wayward but good-hearted, the other domesticated but corrupted by envy, is the dramatic pulse of Peter Shaffer's celebrated "Amadeus," a Broadway and West End hit marking its 20th anniversary with a revival directed by Peter Hall, who helmed the original.
Actually, it's not the characters but the stage animals -- the actors themselves -- who must hold the attention in this respectable but uninspired production of a play that has not, with the passing of years and some tweaking, acquired the patina of an enduring classic. Two decades after its smash Broadway run, which led to a popular, Oscar-winning film, "Amadeus" merely seems like a literate, cheeky and rather long-winded vehicle for a pair of star turns. Whether Broadway debutants Suchet and Sheen provide the wattage necessary to attract sufficient audiences to a play whose acclaimed film version is readily available at the video store remains to be seen. (That $70 top ticket price won't help, either.)
When it opened on Broadway in 1980, the play's rude picture of Mozart as a crude and feckless man-child had the appeal of novelty: Here was one of the most revered artists of the Western world seen through audacious new eyes -- or at least revealed in gaudy new colors to the popular imagination. Surrounding his portrait of the artist as a young vulgarian, Shaffer spun a comic melodrama from the whispers of history suggesting that Mozart's contemporary, the court composer Antonio Salieri, had a hand in his untimely death.
Shaffer's Salieri narrates the play, which follows the two composers' diverging fortunes over a decade at the Viennese court of Emperor Joseph II (a nicely understated David McCallum). The drama unfolds as a long confessional flashback. In 1781, Suchet's courtly, portly Salieri is ensconced in the Austrian capital when Mozart arrives from the provinces trailing a glorious history as a performing prodigy and a composer of astonishing speed and accomplishment.
Salieri is soon thoroughly unhinged by the galling contrast between the celestial sounds of Mozart's music and the puerile buffooneries of the man himself. His beef isn't with Mozart but with God: That this womanizing ruffian should be chosen to deliver the music of the heavens, while the devout Salieri is doomed to be the conduit of more mundane sounds, is too cruel to be borne. Salieri vows to take revenge on such an unjust God, and the destruction of Mozart's career will be the instrument of his vengeance.
The most famous piece of music criticism in history -- that Mozart's music featured "too many notes" -- is duly trotted out for a laugh here, but Shaffer's play suffers the opposite problem: "Amadeus" could in truth use a few more nuances. Professional envy is a fairly commonplace emotion to construct a three-hour play around, and Salieri's flashy fulminations against God's injustice and his machinations derailing Mozart's advancement are elaborated at eventually palling length.
The play's elementary dynamics place a heavy burden on its actors, who must flesh out the limited dimensions of the drama with bravura technique to keep the play crackling along. Previous Salieris have included heavyweights such as Paul Scofield in the play's London debut, Ian McKellen on Broadway and F. Murray Abraham in Milos Forman's film. Suchet takes a fairly dry, subtle approach to the role, cued by some rewriting by Shaffer that seeks to de-fang a portrait deemed too simplistically villainous. Unfortunately, a kinder, gentler Salieri dampens the play's melodramatic sizzle. Suchet intelligently renders the corrosion of this man's soul and spirit in light touches: sardonic asides to the audience, smarmy dissimulations, mournful or glowering glances. But there simply isn't enough emotional voltage in the performance.
By contrast, in an intensely physical, intensely felt performance, Sheen seems almost desperate to provide as much sheer theatrical vigor as he can. The idea that the voice of god can be heard in Sheen's grating whinny of a laugh is indeed appalling. But the actor also suggests a spirit of deep sensitivity beneath the shenanigans -- Mozart's face glows with excitement when he's caught up in a musical discussion, and the peerless, pristine beauties of Mozart's melodies could conceivably come from the haunted young man who seems always to walk in the shadow of Sheen's manic provocateur.
Hall's workmanlike direction doesn't always provide a very strong hand to guide us through the tale, which darts through the years in haphazard fashion. Sometimes it's hard to tell whether Salieri is merely narrating a scene or witnessing it -- at one point Mozart rails against Salieri's machinations as he stands looking blandly on, and you're not sure whether he's in the room or not. (William Dudley's unappealing, somewhat cheap-looking sets may be part of the problem.) In sketchy roles, most of the supporting performers make minimal impressions.
The production only deeply engages us in the grim final scenes. The spectacle of a genius dying penniless has an enduring, pathetic appeal, but Sheen and Suchet also invest it with an immediacy largely lacking elsewhere. "Where did it all go?" Sheen's delirious Mozart wonders with almost disinterested surprise, as Suchet's Salieri crumbles beside him. The play suddenly, finally -- and movingly -- arrests us with its contemplation of deep mysteries: the startling, strange workings of fate, the quietude of God in the face of suffering, the sad truth that posterity may be the only power, earthly or otherwise, that judges us with justice.