No American play describes more powerfully how we imagine ourselves than Thornton Wilder's "Our Town," which has been given a beautiful if flawed revival on Broadway, starring Paul Newman. Grover's Corners, N.H., may not exactly be the "city on the hill" that the Pilgrims envisioned centuries ago, but it is a true community, where people's concern for one another - even the town drunk - is genuine. Wilder was not just describing turn-of-the-century rural America. His aim, one of the theater's most basic tasks, was to show the eternal in the everyday. The weakness here is that it constantly undercuts the cosmic, starting, alas, with its star. When I saw this production in Connecticut last summer, I thought it was a good idea that as the play begins, Newman, who has the role of the Stage Manager, mimes orders to the stagehands. On reflection, this image trivializes the role. He is a backstage boss, but in a grander sense. The Stage Manager constantly reminds the audience that the play, a simple story about the courtship and marriage of George and Emily, is about things that are timeless. That is never clear here. Even the set weakens Wilder's concept, which was to force the audience to use its imagination. Tony Walton's design, with its hanging sandbags and painted back wall, would work better in a backstage musical than this play. When Newman hauls out a trellis "for those who think they have to have scenery," it seems meaningless, since we already have more than enough. Last summer, Newman seemed uncertain of his lines. But the shakiness seems to be part of his characterization, as if he were just a fumbling elder. He (or director James Naughton) has left out an important line (about the meaning of the third act) and they have added one, to make a contemporary political point. Neither helps the play. Newman's stage manager is genial and avuncular, but, oddly, given his skill on the screen, he lacks the stature necessary to make us aware that the play is about more than just small-town life. The strongest actors here are those who play the parents, especially Jeffrey DeMunn as Editor Webb, who poignantly dramatizes the anxieties of a father giving away his daughter. Jayne Atkinson is similarly powerful as the mother of the young man whom all the parents feel is marrying too soon. Jane Curtin has a wonderful strength as DeMunn's wife. Though the character of Emily chastises George for his cockiness, Ben Fox, who plays him, never conveys it. And Maggie Lacey, as Emily, seldom suggests the maturity that will make her the nurturing partner in their impending marriage. Stephen Spinella captures the pathetic quality of the town drunk touchingly. Naughton has had some good ideas, like the tableau of the wedding guests looking wistfully at the departing bridal couple, a subtle way of leading us into the third act's graveyard scene. Walton's costumes capture the period perfectly, and Richard Pilbrow's lighting adds to the mood. Wilder's writing is so powerful that, whatever the weaknesses in a given production, the play is deeply moving.
He takes the stage with casual modesty, his back to the audience, to minimize that ritual applause of star recognition - which at least is postponed until he turns around.
But when you are Paul Newman - and your look, voice and manner are embedded in the collective consciousness and you haven't been seen on Broadway since 1964 - modesty is scarcely an option.
And while some of the audience may have come to see Thornton Wilder's "Our Town," which opened at the Booth Theatre last night, most, I suspect, came to see Paul Newman as the Stage Manager. Understandably.
Newman helped create a specific kind of American acting, which probably took its inspiration from Marlon Brando. It is acting that is minimal but deep, suggesting substance rather than shadow.
It is the art of becoming a character rather than acting a character - and it is an art that serves Newman extraordinarily well as the all-seeing, God-like commentator that Wilder envisaged as his Stage Manager.
Newman, despite his years away from the stage, is very, very good, and he glides into the role with just the right mix of offhand ease and unquestionable authority.
The production itself, deftly staged by James Naughton, comes from Joanne Woodward's Westport Country Playhouse (yes, sometimes nepotism is justified - at least in the case of the husband-and-wife team of Newman and Woodward). Its exquisitely apt casting makes it a good case for Wilder's play as an enduring classic.
And a case needs to be made for it - for it is shamefully sentimental and nakedly manipulative. But "Our Town," in a production as sweetly unvarnished as this, seems to bring out the best of the worst in us.
Yes, we weep at Little Nell; yes, we can sense that our feelings are being twisted with unfair poignancy. But it works. And Wilder's shining belief in the importance of life's littleness gleams through all the dramatic hokum he piles upon it.
Naughton's staging is slightly innovative in that it uses a designer, the ever-resourceful Tony Walton, to give more of a sense of place to Wilder's New Hampshire village, Grover's Corners, between the turn of the century and World War I.
Walton's painted backdrop, plus Richard Pilbrow's lighting and the careful soundscape provided by Raymond D. Schilke, gives us a township more naturalistic than usual, which neatly frames the carefully etched vignettes of the cast.
And that cast, from tip to toe, is exceptional. As the happily doomed Emily Webb, Maggie Lacey is as fresh as a dawn-dewed cornflower, and Ben Fox as George Gibbs makes her a delightfully gauche suitor.
The parents, Frank Converse and Jayne Atkinson as Dr. and Mrs. Gibbs, and Jeffrey DeMunn and Jane Curtin as the Webbs all seem to have stepped out of life, or at least life as seen by Thornton Wilder.
Among so many other graceful cameos let me merely single out Stephen Spinella's haunting and haunted church organist and town drunk, the gaunt Simon Stimson, Wilder's one dark note in his Norman Rockwell picture.
This is a limited run, and not one to be missed. As Wilder himself stresses, time is of the essence, so gather the rosebuds and smell the roses.
In the hushed moments before the new revival of ''Our Town'' begins, a lean, slightly worn-looking figure can be discerned shuffling in and out of the shadows on the stage, helping to arrange the furniture.
It is an inconspicuous silhouette, and even when its features come into focus, there is still a quality of anonymity about the man, who wears his wire-framed glasses as if they were the Lone Ranger's mask. If you weren't looking for a movie star who had been advertised, you probably wouldn't think there was anything special about the fellow. Thus does Paul Newman insinuate his way into the audience's consciousness in the easygoing, generally lukewarm production of Thornton Wilder's masterpiece that opened last night at the Booth Theater. You would be wrong to assume that this introduction would turn out to be a sort of conjurer's trick, to be followed by something like Vanessa Williams's throwing off her hag's drag to reveal her true dazzling beauty in ''Into the Woods.''
As the all-knowing, avuncular Stage Manager of ''Our Town,'' Mr. Newman remains genuinely and doggedly humble for the succeeding two-hours-plus of Wilder's immortal tale of small-town mortality at the turn of the 20th century.
Never mind that it is the interest generated by Mr. Newman's participation, his first Broadway appearance since 1964, that allowed the show to recoup its $1 million capital even before it opened. This Westport Country Playhouse production, directed by James Naughton, may provide the most modest performance ever by a major American star on a Broadway stage. Which is not to say that when the evening ends you feel that Mr. Newman has faded away like the proverbial old soldier.
Such self-effacement is appropriate to ''Our Town,'' a work that became a classic of soft-spoken theater almost from the moment it opened in 1938. Wilder's study of daily lives framed by the echo of eternity, set in the archetypal town, Grovers Corners, N.H., makes a point of insisting on the banality of its characters and setting, using adjectives like dull and ordinary with a pride that is deeply and particularly American.
For ordinary, of course, you can substitute universal, as Wilder isn't shy about doing every so often. But if there is a whiff of philosophical smugness in the play's cracker-barrel knowingness, there is none at all in Mr. Newman's Stage Manager, who narrates and oversees the evening.
Wearing his period costume of vest, shirt and trousers as if he had just thrown them on in a hurry, Mr. Newman emanates little of the just-folks, pipe-smoking heartiness associated with the part and even less of the grim Jovean irony that Spalding Gray brought to the role in the 1988 revival. Mr. Newman has instead the aura of someone figuring out things as he goes along, almost seeming to invent his lines on the spot and then to marvel when they sound deep.
In other words, he plays the Stage Manager less as a stand-in for God than as yet another bewildered member of the ensemble called the human race. In his early film performances Mr. Newman seemed consciously to avoid the sheen of movie-star glamour; his extraordinary natural good looks needed no extra polish. In like manner he now knows that his living-legend stature requires no special enhancement, and he's all the more resonant for not working at it.
Much of the rest of the production -- which features Jayne Atkinson, Frank Converse, Jane Curtin and Stephen Spinella -- lacks this low-key confidence. Grovers Corners has been compared to both the lonely wastelands of Samuel Beckett and the picket-fence-bordered backyards of the Andy Hardy movies. The ideal production of ''Our Town'' falls somewhere between the cosmic chill of the one and the homey warmth of the other.
This latest interpretation leans dangerously toward Norman Rockwell territory, when more of the bleakness of Edward Hopper would be welcome. Wilder specified ''no scenery'' in his stage directions, yet this production features a set by Tony Walton that suggests a Disneyland version of an empty stage. There are exposed trompe l'oeil radiators painted on the back wall and a whole galaxy of sandbag weights on ropes overhead.
The effect is to put the play's deliberate plainness into quotation marks. And once you start to gild the austere lily that is ''Our Town,'' you've upset an essential balance. Although the play was revolutionary in its fluid movement through time and its direct addresses to the audience, Wilder surely never meant it to be cute in its self-consciousness.
The cast members for the most part don't overdo the provincial humor. But there's a glimmer of a sly, twinkling charm that seriously undercuts the play's impact. Only a few performances seem to have fallen into the flow of understatement -- and the sense of existing entirely in the moment -- that the play demands.
In the central roles of George and Emily, who move from shy young love into marriage, Ben Fox and Maggie Lacey haven't quite found their feet yet. They tend toward overexpressiveness, though the opening moments of their courtship scene in the second act are lovely. Ms. Curtin, though she seems to be enjoying herself, is a shade too acutely comic in her reactions as Emily's mother. (It doesn't help that her accent and inflections bring to mind Mrs. Loopner, the fretful matron she played on ''Saturday Night Live.'')
Similarly, Mr. Spinella could tone down the sepulchral tones of disdain of the alcoholic organist he portrays. But Mr. Converse and especially Jeffrey DeMunn wear their respective roles as the town doctor and the newspaper editor as if they were old sweaters. And Ms. Atkinson, one of the finest actresses on the New York stage, is first rate as George's mother.
There is nothing flashy about her Mrs. Gibbs. But whether she's feeding an imaginary flock of chickens or savoring the smell of heliotrope, she inhabits every scene with a sharpness, simplicity and immediacy that, like the play itself, fully values the small and fleeting moments in life.
So, in his more subdued way, does Mr. Newman, who waits until the second act to turn on the oratorical charisma that is the Stage Manager's right. Even then, he dispenses it sparingly and to maximum effect. ''You make a few decisions and then, wham, you're 70,'' he says at one point, with a vigor and incredulity that startle.
Mr. Newman himself is only a month shy of 78. But his performance here suggests that getting older has its advantages, at least if you're an American idol who no longer has to strain to make an indelible impression.
There is something incongruous about seeing Our Town in a Broadway theater.
Thornton Wilder's celebrated homage to life's simple joys, the most fastidiously humble of plays, seems more suited to a high school auditorium or a community playhouse than a big, neon-lit venue in midtown Manhattan. And in fact, the revival that opened Wednesday at the Booth Theatre originated at the homey Westport Country Playhouse in Connecticut, where it ran in June.
Granted, Westport is hardly your average small-town venue, having played host to such luminaries as Ethel Barrymore, Jessica Tandy and Henry Fonda. Its Our Town boasts an impressive roster of stage and screen veterans, among them Paul Newman, whose wife, Joanne Woodward, happens to be Westport's current artistic director.
Luckily, that star power never overshadows Wilder's folksy charm. Even in its plush new digs, the production, set to run through Jan. 26, retains the plucky modesty that made it so convincing and endearing in its original home.
As the Stage Manager, Newman sets the play's tone and oversees its developments. At nearly 78, the actor hasn't lost his twinkly-eyed vigor, and his narrator conveys the resolute robustness of a man who takes no blessing for granted.
The rest of the company, which is gracefully directed by James Naughton, reaffirms this spirit with performances that grow warmer and more poignant as the plot progresses. The first act moves slowly at times, as the actors establish the stringent ordinariness that the characters personify on a superficial level. But as the script digs deeper, they shed light on key elements of life and death that we too often take for granted.
As the doomed ingénue Emily Webb, Maggie Lacey embodies the bright-eyed earnestness and faith central to the play's depiction of youth, providing the perfect complement to Newman's bemused sagacity. Jane Curtin and Jayne Atkinson deftly juggle humor and gritty pragmatism as the elder Mrs. Webb and her neighbor Mrs. Gibbs, and Jeffrey DeMunn and Frank Converse turn in equally smart, rigorous performances as their husbands.
Other standouts include Ben Fox as George Gibbs, Emily's befuddled but noble suitor, and Mia Dillon as the goodhearted town busybody. And Stephen Spinella is haunting as a troubled man through whom Wilder illustrates the dangers of conceding to despair.
Tony Walton's unfussy costumes and his spare set design, which requires the performers to relay basic actions and gestures through pantomime, adds to the production's scrupulously unpretentious flavor. So if this starry season finds you looking for the theatrical equivalent of a good, plain home-cooked meal, this is the ticket.
Paul Newman all but backs onto the stage of the Booth Theater in the opening moments of "Our Town," so anxious is he not to hog the spotlight in this new Broadway revival of Thornton Wilder's bittersweet meditation on life and death. But it's no use. When the man with the rumpled frosting of gray hair finally turns to face the audience, the eyes, shrink though they do behind those wire-rimmed spectacles, give him away instantly, and the applause comes anyway, as if on cue. There's no escaping the legacy of affection from a half-century of movie stardom, after all -- particularly not when you're standing on a Broadway stage.
Also inescapable, alas, is the gradual revelation that the stardust Newman casually trails across the stage -- virtually despite himself -- is all that glitters in this modest, mediocre production. An import from the Westport Country Playhouse, where Newman's wife, Joanne Woodward, is artistic director, it never shakes the shadow of summer stock clinging to its heels. Directed anonymously by James Naughton, the production glides over the play's deep emotional currents glibly, too often falling into the trap of sepia-toned folksiness that is always dangerously close at hand in Wilder's affectionate portrait of daily life in turn-of-the-(last)-century Grover's Corners, N.H.
Depicting the trivial minutiae of his characters' discourse -- the friendly chat with the milkman, the gossip over the back fence, the schoolyard flirtation -- Wilder subtly evokes the larger impulses that move beneath the surface of everyday life: the striving for love, the fear of death, the comfort in company, the persistence of loneliness. Exploring how the beauty and sorrow of human existence are deeply ingrained in the mundane texture of everyday existence -- and how life's essence eludes as we live it day by day -- Wilder's masterpiece artlessly blends ruminations on the ever-"troubled" course of human existence with a seriocomic portrait of the follies of small-town life.
But as the first act unfolds, depicting 24 hours in the life of this average American town, we wait in vain for the actors to delve under the skins of their characters and reveal the souls beneath the petticoats and the three-piece suits. They rarely do. In the end it's only the cute comic follies that come across successfully in this staging, as in the amusing second-act scenes surrounding the anxiety that attends the wedding of Emily Webb (Maggie Lacey) and George Gibbs (Ben Fox), the young neighbors whose blossoming love is the central focus of the play. The production scarcely dips into the well of deeper feeling in Wilder's writing.
The actors seem content to accentuate the homespun humor, the (variable) Yankee accents, the miming of everyday activities; we rarely lose the sense of performers inhabiting roles. An awareness of theatrical artifice is, of course, built into the structure of the play, but even when they're directly addressing the audience, Wilder's characters scrupulously retain their authentic humanity. Here it's not humanity but a quaint, theatrical facsimile of it that most of the performers exude -- despite the presence in the cast of such veteran actors as Frank Converse and Jayne Atkinson as Dr. and Mrs. Gibbs, and Jeffrey DeMunn and Jane Curtin as Mr. and Mrs. Webb. (The general air of artifice is underlined by Tony Walton's surprisingly stodgy and overdressed set, which includes a peculiar, distracting backdrop depicting -- unnecessarily, one would have thought -- the back wall of a theater.)
The roles are deceptively modest ones, it's true. None is particularly large, so a sense of the characters' interior lives must be communicated in brief sprinklings of stage time. Atkinson, for example, must imbue Mrs. Gibbs' casual conversation with Mrs. Webb about her desire to see Paris with a lifetime's accretion of small, unspoken hopes and minor dissatisfactions. She nearly succeeds, but the feeling dissipates quickly. Stephen Spinella, in the small role of the dipsomaniacal chorus director, shines briefly in his few minutes onstage, his haunted eyes and wiry, anxious movements suggesting a man desperately aware of his unfitness for life. And Lacey, bland in the early going, does well enough by the play's emotional climax, when Emily returns from the grave to observe a day in her life, even if the scene never achieves the devastating power inherent in it.
Newman is an instantly likable, laid-back presence as the Stage Manager, observing the denizens of Grover's Corners with an amiable diffidence, or peering skeptically over the top of his spectacles at the professor's enthusiastic dissertation on the town's ethnic makeup. With a much-beloved star in the role, we are predisposed to pay particular heed to the Stage Manager's words -- which may be why Newman, who is scrupulously careful not to let his star wattage upend the play, actually underplays the role (although a long absence from the stage may also explain his erratic grasp of the poetic pulse of Wilder's narration). And his performance, too, is mildly infected with a countrified cuteness; it could use more of the cool steel Newman brought to his first-rate turn in the movie "Road to Perdition."
The audience is not likely to go home feeling shortchanged, in any event. They've come to see a celluloid vision transformed, for the first time in four decades, into flesh. This the production obviously delivers. It serves up a pleasant, greeting-card picture of old New England, too, with sentimental flourishes that will doubtless draw a sniffle or two from the stargazers. But Wilder's soul-stirring play that illuminates both the nobility and the pain in the evanescence of human life? For that, look elsewhere. At the Booth, even Wilder's darkest ruminations on the troublesome course of existence come across as sayings that could comfortably be stitched on samplers.