She finds it boring in Africa's clime
She'd go to pieces but hasn't the time
Newspaper people find her in her prime
That why the lady is a tramp.
Maggie Smith plays a bored, coolly amusing, detached ("semidetached," the author might say), daydreaming sophisticate, wife of a British mine owner in a fictional African state in turmoil in Tom Stoppard's new play "Night and Day," which opened last night at the ANTA. Maggie Smith is divine, and she should be with us for some time to come. I'm not at all sure what the character she plays, Ruth Carson, is doing there. Yet she's as indispensable as a female companion to a castaway on a cartoonist's desert isle, and both she and Stoppard are bringing rare style to Broadway.
Ruth, whose most fanciful and outrageous thoughts we hear, along with her theme song "The Lady Is a Tramp," lives with her husband Geoffrey in a handsome villa in a former British colony called Kambawe, whose revolutionary black government is now being contested by forces under another black leader.
The explosive political situation has attracted reporters from all over the world, and three of them have turned up at the Carsons. The weekend before, when Ruth was in London to get the Carsons' young son Alistair home from prep school, she had a casual one-night stand with a hard-bitten Australian reporter for a London weekly. Now he's here, a pragmatist named Dick Wagner, along with his photographer and a young interloper, an idealist who has scooped Wagner in his own paper by inadvertently landing an interview with the insurgent leader.
In this, by far his most rigidly constructed work, Stoppard, once a journalist himself, has written a Shavian drawing-room comedy whose principal subject is the use and abuse of freedom of the press and the extent of a reporter's indebtedness to unions and publishers ("I'm for a free press," Ruth remarks. "It's the newspapers I don't like.") The ultimate question posed when Jacob Milne, the Marchbanks to Ruth's Candida, the young idealist with whom she fantasizes a love affair in a dream scene, gets himself killed, is how far does a reporter's responsibility to his paper extend? Even to death, like the 49 newsmen killed in Vietnam?
It is the job at hand, of course, that provides its own answer. And when, at the finish, Ruth stands alone downstage singing a few bars of "The Lady Is a Tramp" while Wagner is playing the telex, she reads the brief obit he has just filed on Milne. "Is that it?" she asks. "That's it," he says.
The discussions about the ethics of journalism are prevocative but superficial, and Milne's talk about junk journalism, though lively, is specifically aimed at a type of tabloid journalism peculiar to England, just as some other of the play's references are.
Smith, whether speaking directly or talking to herself in the midst of a discussion among the others (on occasion, she blurts out a word or phrase), can curl, brake and release a line with devastating accuracy, and she has never been more bewitching or entertaining than she is here as Stoppard supplies her with epigrams and other bon mots by the dozen. She is also enormously convincing in her diatribe against the news "media": "It sounds," she says, "like a convention of spiritualists." She can also be touching in her suddenly aroused interest in, then lust and later mourning for Milne.
Paul Hecht is fine as the bluff Wagner, and Dwight Schultz is especially good as the compulsive and experienced photo-journalist. Clarence Williams 3d brings a sharp thrust to the role of Kambawe's President Mageeba, who arrives at the Carson villa in the dead of night for an ostensible peace talk with the insurgent-leader. Peter Evans - unlike Hecht and Schultz, he employs an accent - lacks spark in an otherwise intelligent performance as Milne. Joseph Maher, though he looks a trifle too mature for the part, gives a smooth account of Ruth's diplomatic husband.
Peter Wood has staged the play impeccably in a brightly functional swiveling indoor-outdoor setting designed, along with the costumes, by Carl Toms around a thick tree trunk (even the opening, with the photographer dozing beneath the tree after having leapt from a speeding jeep in the smoky flare of a bomb shell, brings Shaw immediately to mind). The excellent lighting scheme is by Neil Peter Jampolis.
While Stoppard is at his dazzlingly playful verbal best and Maggie Smith is a dream, "Night and Day" is a play in which almost all the action occurs offstage and the exotic locale is essentially window-dressing for a Shavian discussion superficially treated. Still, it's fun, and oh, that Maggie!
Let us get one thing out of the way first. Tom Stoppard's new play, Night and Day, which opened at the ANTA Theater last night, is dazzling. And let's get a second thing out of the way, so is it's actress, Maggie Smith, returning to Broadway after an inconsiderately long seven years. Some people just don't understand when they are loved.
In the past, Stoppard has chosen to dazzle us with existentialist philosophy and verbal pyrotechnics. There was certainly nothing wrong with those taffeta phrases, or, for that matter the dizzying leaps he offered into his own extraordinarily conscious sub-consciousness.
Yet just possibly Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Inspector Hound, the adorably dotty Henry Carr of Travesties, or the maniac academic of Jumpers, merely represented Stoppard's salad days. With Every Good Boy Deserves Favour a more serious note seemed to enter his work - almost a more serious stave - and his seriousness is maintained in this new tragicomedy, Night and Day.
The play scores on two specific, precise and wonderful levels. The first is its subject matter, and the second is the unusual reality, even density, of the characters.
The story could well be more of a didactic treatise than a play, it could have been one of those interminable theatrical debates full of wit and nonsense, or that most barren of dramatic landscapes, the plain symbolic tract. Instead it is a play on such an obscure subject as press freedom, yet it throbs with life.
Why have a free press - particularly such a cynically free press as represented by much of London's Fleet Street? Does it do any real good, are its stories of real value? Men die to get stories. A friend of mine was once blown up in a jeep in Israel - I think he was probably also a friend of Stoppard's, certainly a similar incident is crucial to Night and Day.
The play is set in a former British colony in Africa. It is the home of a wealthy English owner of copper mines. The state is in some confusion - indeed it is almost on the point of civil war. The mine-owner has tried to set up a meeting between the President and the insurgent leader. Journalists are swooping around like doves, hawks, and carrion birds of prey.
Three of them arrive at the mineowner's house - a tough, buccaneering Australian Fleet Street veteran, an equally tough little photographer who never gets enough sleep, and an idealist who used to work in the provinces and is now on his big assignment.
Stoppard, before he went legitimate and started to write plays, was a journalist himself and he knows the field. He even knows some of the fielders. Here he is contrasting the commercialism of journalism - even the London Times or Paris's Le Monde is out to make money - with its practical function of enlightenment. Ideals mixed with squalor, that is like T.S. Eliot's diamonds and cabbages in a dustbin.
The play is non-judgmental. Although the ending perhaps stresses the smallness of journalism, stress has also been placed on its bigness, its aspirations and capabilities as well as its pains and liabilities.
The characters are engagingly complex and unpredictable. The wife has had a brief affair - or at least a fling - with the Australian earlier that year in London, and she fantasizes about love with the younger journalist. The republic's president is a man of power and presence, bitterness and steel, while the husband seems both complaisant and complacent, a natural survivor.
Peter Wood has directed the play with a most agreeable wariness - he never quite hints where the play is going to jump. Nor for that matter does Stoppard, although the characters, seen against the immaculate designs of Carl Toms and bathed in the suggestive lighting of Neil Peter Jampolis, do indeed provide clues. This is always the way these people would act.
The cast is exceptional. Miss Smith we all know about, but her sad funniness and gentle innuendos of life and style, have never been less mannered or more effective. And the others are equally brilliant.
Paul Hecht, with an accent that could pass in Alice Springs let alone Adelaide, is excellent as the completely professional newshound, but Peter Evans as the young reporter, Joseph Maher as the mild husband and Clarence Williams III as the fierce black leader, all add wonderfully to a play that is especially rich in both texture and structure. It makes all its points but never at the expense of sense. It is a pleasure to have Night and Day around and it should be around a long time.
There are two Maggie Smiths in Tom Stoppard's "Night And Day," the public Maggie and the private Maggie, and I'm going to confess to a partiality for the private Maggie right off.
Oh, the public Maggie is all right. She lounges about in an olive-green pants suit, crossing and uncrossing her legs as she rests her head against the wicker of a great fanback chair, caring not a hoot for the African mines her husband owns and may lose it revolution comes, controlling her boredom by coining demi-epigrams on the order of "Hotel rooms constitute a separate moral universe."
She should know about hotel rooms, for she's very recently been in one, not much enjoying a one-night experiment with a journalist. She's restless, this public Maggie with the flamingo-red hair, and not always strictly attentive to the bumbling men about her.
It's when her attention strays far enough that the private Maggie leaps into view, magically detaching herself from her own slender form, eyes blazing like twin baby spotlights, lips curved prettily into a confiding oval. With no transition at all, she's abandoned her identity as bored wife and mother and taken on a new one - or six or seven new ones.
On the first try, she turns into the Elizabeth Taylor of "Elephant Walk," clearly enunciating "Get out of this house!," adopting a deliciously hefty stance that will somehow account for Miss Taylor and the elephants both. Later on, she'll be cautioning herself "Watch yourself, Tallulah!" as one hand flips back to pat her coiffure into place and her vocal chords glide gracefully from low lust to high tea.
But she's not simply reliving old movies and plays. She's interested in making her own life more dramatic than it is, which may be why she promptly cries "Don't shoot, Geoffrey!" as her husband, preoccupied with a telephone call, unexpectedly stabs two fingers in her general direction. What he really wants is a drag on her cigarette, and one can see why she'd prefer melodrama to that.
Miss Smith, privately, is exceedingly funny as she rehearses the dutiful confession she will make of her last little tryst ("Jeffy darling, something happened when I was in London"), funnier still as she becomes enamored of yet another, decidedly younger journalist and, in her reveries, finds she must invent his lines for him ("That Ruth Carson - she's all woman!). Need I say that Miss Smith's character-name in the play is Ruth Carson, and that when she splits the part up into assorted personalities, she's making the best possible case for schizophrenia? Miss Smith is, all by her many selves, what an old vaudevillian would call a class act.
Would that there were two or four or six or eight more of her to help fill out "Night and Day." Mr. Stoppard hasn't actually meant to devote his energies, or our evening, to the state of Miss Smith's sex life, real or imagined. He has, rather, intended to conduct a Shavian sort of forum on the issue of freedom of the press, with five men offering divergent views while Miss Smith waits for them to shut up and talk about her.
The debate, I regret to say, is a good bit less than enthralling. It is leaked out languorously, in bits and pieces so that one or another of those present can slip offstage now and again to attend to the political affair of a mythical African state named Kambawe, about which we know very little and care considerably less.
The chap Miss Smith has bedded and found wanting (Paul Hecht) is cynical about his profession: The freedom to print anything and everything is simply a means of making the press lords rich. The younger fellow Miss Smith yearns after (Peter Evans) is a self-proclaimed idealist, stoutly maintaining that unless the press is free to speak, every other social institution will be free to conceal its dirty deeds. He is also something of an opportunist, turning up scoop after scoop by "accident."
An ace photographer (Dwight Schultz) is interested only in recording what happens; objectivity is all. "Objectivity for or objectivity against?" Mr. Hecht wants to know. Miss Smith's husband (Joseph Maher) is pretty much silent upon the theme, though he's provided the reporters with a telex to use while they're sniffing out a potential revolution in the land. The President of Kambawe, dropping by of an evening, stresses - with his riding-crop, used violently upon Mr. Hecht - his preference for a "relatively" free press, which means a press edited by his relatives. As for Miss Smith herself, she's predictably indifferent to the tangled rhetoric tumbling about her, sometimes lapsing into her private self simply to cry "Help!"
Playwright Stoppard has made it plain in interviews that he's a free-press man himself, no matter what venalities journalism may engender. "Information is light!", one debater insists. And you'll hear the line. I'm not at all certain you'd arrive at the author's position on your own, though. The argument is too fragmented, too circuitous, too inconclusive for that.
In addition, and most oddly, our playwright has given his longest, angriest, best-written outburst to the persuasive Miss Smith. If a reporter dies on the job, she explodes, he's died only for the product, for the women's page and for the crossword puzzle. "Maybe someone along the line died for the leading article, but it's not worth that!" is the lady's clincher.
Of course there is some wit along the way. Mr. Stoppard is a man delighted by words. I'm beginning to wonder, though, whether he's a true dramatist at all. Virtually no effort is made during the evening to link up thought and events, argument and action. The debate really takes place in a void. Miss Smith's romantic life doesn't influence the argument in the least. Nor does the argument measurably affect the politics of Kambawe. Three separate compartments; no connecting doors.
The physical production at the ANTA, under Peter Wood's direction, makes a few elaborate stabs at providing the energy that's missing. The evening opens with rolling clouds of ground-smoke, blazing headlights on a Jeep, sudden death under strobe lights. Perhaps the image is meant to give us something tangible to cling to during the abstract talkathon that follows. Upon occasion, walls and fireplaces and sofas begin to trundle about the stage to suggest that something new is taking place. But the conversation picks up exactly where it is left off; only the scenery has moved.
The men of the piece aren't characters; they're just attitudes. Which leaves us, theatrically and dramatically, where we began, with Miss Smith. The actresses can, and does, do wonders. But she can't single-handedly turn night into day.