There are two things that make a visit to the Atkinson, where Ronald Harwood's "The Dresser" opened last night, imperative: the sheer, wonderful theatricality of the occasion and the magisterial performances by its two stars, Tom Courtenay and Paul Rogers.
This is an unashamedly sentimental and even predictable backstage drama focused on that most inconspicuous member of a theatrical troupe, the star's dresser. In this case, the man is indispensable, a veritable lifeline between dressing room and stage for an elderly Shakespearean actor-manager touring the English provinces with his troupe in 1942, at the height of the German bombing attack on Britain.
It is to be "King Lear" tonight, but the knighted star, identified only as Sir (the character is said to be inspired by the late and greatly underrated actor-manager, Sir Donald Wolfit, with whom the playwright was acquainted), has been hospitalized after some erratic street behavior, including the shedding of some outerwear, in the company's current stopover town.
Needless to say, he shows up, confused and in a disheveled state, having forced his way out of the hospital. It is his dresser, Norman, a slight, epicene and thoroughly efficient man who has been serving in this capacity for 16 years now who, through decisive action, prompting, cajolery and, of course, dressing, gets his weary wreck of a master together and, finally, out from the wings to once more (for the last time, as it turns out) hypnotize an audience.
It is a familiar story made refreshingly new by its novel point of view, by the author's (and our) obvious delight in being immersed in this tight little world, made so much tighter and dedicated in wartime (there is an air raid during the course of the performance).
Courtenay is superb as the mincing, businesslike, loyal and loving figure of the title, expressive, pinched features surmounting a slight frame clad in shabby black jersey and black pants whose hip pocket contains a much-swilled pint of brandy. Small and insignificant as his occupation may seem, it is his whole life and he will be lost without it. Courtenay makes you feel every facet of this mildly vain, solicitous, quick-witted creature who flits about a backstage more his domain than that of any other member of the troupe except the star. He is magical.
And Rogers is monumental as the Sir, arising phoenix-like from the ashes of the old and beaten actor to assume the mantle of his most difficult and favorite role. Adoring his wife, Her Ladyship (Rachel Gurney in a lovely performance), a woman younger than he and tied to "a third-rate actor," as she puts it in a heated scene, when she might have accepted a Hollywood offer while the company was touring America years back, he still summons up enough energy to court the favor of a hungrily ambitious and pretty young extra in his troupe, a part in which Lisabeth Bartlett makes a striking professional and local debut.
Marge Redmond is well-cast as the efficient company manager, and the several bit roles are ably handled.
Michael Elliott has staged the evening to the hilt in a marvelously atmospheric setting that somehow contains, besides the dressing room itself, the wings, a corridor, a staircase and several dark corners. Stephen Doncaster's costuming is excellent, and Beverly Emmons has lighted the show handsomely.
"The Dresser" is slick stuff, and the writing is not without its share of cliches, but it rises above pure hokum through the originality of its title character, its feeling of underlying authenticity, and the way in which it revels in its subject matter, an enthusiasm communicated so vividly by its stars. I think you'll love it as much as I did.
Ronald Harwood's enthralling play The Dresser, a London import that opened at the Brooks Atkinson Theater last night, more than enthralls - it takes you up into its vortex like a vacuum cleaner.
It is first of all a portrait - no, really two portraits. Then it is a vehicle - no, really two vehicles. And finally it is a memorial, almost a dirge, to a long and significant period in the English-speaking theater, the Age of the Actor Manager.
The play is set in a seedy English provincial theater in January 1942 - a period of austerity, air-raids (the costume designer should be reminded, however, that by 1942 virtually nobody in Britain was carrying a gas mask) and a sad shortage of male actors of quality.
Within his dingy dressing room, that you can almost smell as well as see, and the ramshackle wings of the theater itself, Sir plays out his final act.
Sir is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. He has that afternoon been hospitalized by his own dresser, Norman, who found him haranguing a crowd and tearing his clothes off. His wife and manager have virtually decided to cancel the performance, when the dishevelled old thespian, having discharged himself from hospital, turns up at his dressing room like a distraught and mangey lion. Norman prepares him for the performance - the play is King Lear.
The importance of the dresser in this kind of touring stock company cannot be over-emphasized. By virtue of his proximity with the star he became a sort of Lord Chamberlain, part manservant, part confidant, part nanny, the keeper of secrets, the deliverer of prizes.
Here is the key to Harwood's funny and touching play - these two men, the fading actor and the wasplike figure of his loyal dresser. Both portraits are extraordinarily adroitly presented, with the dresser clearly playing a kind of Fool to the crumbling actor's Lear.
These are the portraits. But Harwood is essentially a man of the theater rather than a major playwright, so these roles are almost more machines for actors than lovingly delineated dramatic portraits. But what machines they are! Almost any actor would jump at them.
Now we journey through Sir's last night on Earth, as he struggles with himself, the tempest and Shakespeare, and we get a wonderfully evocative picture of the barnstorming tradition of British classic acting.
Where the American production outstrips the acclaimed British staging is very largely in its casting.
In London, Sir was played by a good actor who had no classic dimension and little classic experience. He could rant and roar, and indeed in his off-stage scenes he was modestly effective, but he could certainly never have played Lear in public.
In New York we have Paul Rogers, who not only could play Lear but has.
But it is not for nothing that the play is called The Dresser, and here Tom Courtenay, at the seeming height of his powers, is giving a performance of consummate deftness. Harwood has provided him with speeches that are practically a mosaic of irrelevant detail, and the actor wanders through them bemused as if in a maze.
This is a complex character - he may be Lear's Fool but he is also Othello's Iago, and his triumphs are small but deep. Courtenay, whether using his "best nanny voice" or scaring off a voracious ingenue who has designs on Sir, is superb. Just listen to him sing "I like a nice cup of tea in the morning," and see him make a banal jingle into bitter, plaintive poetry.
The rest of the performances are beautifully groomed - I particularly enjoyed Rachel Gurney's tired gallantry as the actor's wife, and Douglas Seale as the understudy Fool most unlikely. With Laurie Dennett's settings and Stephen Doncaster's costumes the play looks just right.
It is certainly just right for Broadway, bringing glistening distinction to a season that sorely needed it.
The dark and jagged set of Ronald Harwood's play ''The Dresser'' is the ratty backstage area - moldy dressing rooms, cramped corridors and wings - of a crumbling theater somewhere in the British provinces. The time is 1942, and the stink of death is in the air. Outside, there are howling sirens, signaling another Luftwaffe bombing raid. Inside, skulking about the gloom, are Mr. Harwood's central characters - two men who seem to have scant reason to live.
Sir (Paul Rogers) is an aged Shakespearean actor-manager, now reduced to touring third-rate towns with a war-depleted troupe of ''old men, cripples and nancy-boys.'' His mind and body are failing fast, yet tonight he is to give his 427th performance as King Lear. Norman (Tom Courtenay), his dresser, is supposed to ready Sir for the show, yet he's scarcely better off. A sepulchral, middle-aged homosexual who's spent 16 years in near-feudal servitude to his master, he seems to gain his sole spiritual nourishment from the pint bottle he keeps in his back pocket. Whatever friends he has are long gone, ghosts left behind at other lonely theaters along the road.
But while Sir and Norman are pathetic, they're bound together by a common cause: an audience is in the house, and the show must go on. ''The Dresser,'' which arrived at the Atkinson last night, is about how Sir, Norman and the rest of their fleabag company somehow rise above air raids and personal calamities to perform their ''Lear.'' If it's a stirring evening - and it most abundantly is - it's not because Mr. Harwood has written a flawless play, or one that runs particularly deep. It's because this writer and his two glorious stars burn with a love of the theater that conquers all.
Why do Sir and Norman go on with the show? Because, for them, the stage really is the one safe haven where even the dreariest realities of life can always be escaped. As we watch these theater people practice their total childlike faith in the transcendent powers of make-believe, we rediscover that feeling in ourselves. The primal impulse that makes Sir and Norman go on is the same one that first sent us to the theater as an audience.
Mr. Harwood does more, too. A one-time dresser to the late actor-manager Donald Wolfit, the playwright has crammed ''The Dresser'' with perfectly observed, devilishly entertaining backstage lore. Sir's hammy provincial troupe is the final, seedy inheritor of the 19th-century theatrical tradition epitomized by Vincent Crummles's roving company in ''Nicholas Nickleby'' - and it's just as hilarious in its noble yet chaotic pursuit of the Bard. Most important, Mr. Harwood has written a moving, platonic love story for Sir and Norman - two irascible men who can't live without each other any better than they can live without the theater.
It is the author's conceit - sometimes too explicitly stated - that Sir and Norman's private backstage drama parallels the onstage one between Lear and his fool. The crotchety old star sees himself as royalty - even if, to his eternal displeasure, he has yet to be knighted - and he regards Norman as a peon who exists only to do his every bidding. But now that Sir is in decline, he needs the dresser as a nursemaid and confessor - a role the younger man plays very well, even as he bridles at his boss's parsimony and abuse. Yet Norman needs Sir, too: when the old actor takes to the stage, the dresser basks in his performance as if it were his own. Once their theatrical tradition - and wartorn England itself - fall into ruin, it's only a matter of time before the men come together in madness and affection.
To be sure, ''The Dresser'' isn't ''King Lear,'' but the stars play it as if it were. In Sir, Mr. Rogers has his first good New York role since ''The Homecoming.'' Often deflated and confused to the point of tears, he suddenly rises to full imperious height at the prospect of a full house or an autograph seeker. He rails at the heavens about the glories of Shakespeare, then behaves like a petulant child when crying out for chocolates, bad-mouthing his theatrical rivals or recalling his rejection by Hollywood. (''They haven't built a camera large enough to record me!'') And while Mr. Rogers is a broken down old wheezebag in his soiled street clothes and unkempt white mane, he does achieve a star's grandeur once dressed in full Lear regalia. We believe, as Norman says, that ''once he's assumed the disguise, he's a different man'' - ennobled by the only passion he knows.
Mr. Courtenay, never less than a brilliant actor, has outdone himself here. His Dresser is so seamless that it's impossible to tell, for instance, at what point he ceases to be tipsy and becomes roaring drunk. Dressed in black, his long fingers in perpetual flutter, the spindly Mr. Courtenay starts off as a prototypical backstage queen. He coddles his boss in the disingenuous, sing-song voice of a nanny, prattles blithely on about his trivial theatrical memories, then darts like a snake when another member of the company intrudes upon his turf. But Norman is not really a bitchy conniver. Once he nears the stage, his face loses its lines and radiates the utter sweet innocence of a child at his first pantomime. He says of the theater: ''Here's beauty. Here's spring and summer. Here pain is bearable'' - and that simple credo, as delivered by Mr. Courtenay, raises a fundamentally silly man to a state of grace.
Full-bodied as the performances are, the frailties of the play are nonetheless visible. Mr. Harwood tends to explain his jokes and, especially in an Act II confrontation between Sir and his long-suffering actress wife (well done by Rachel Gurney), to announce his emotional points. His ending - his emotional points. His ending - though much redeemed by Mr. Courtenay's volcanic final speech - is sentimental melodrama, not tragedy. Luckily, these real weaknesses are usually counterbalanced by the author's wit and high-charged theatricality.
That theatricality, whether chilling or farcical, is always captured by the director, Michael Elliott, and a strong supporting cast that includes Douglas Seale as the worst understudy ever to play Lear's Fool and Lisabeth Bartlett as an ambitious ingenue. Laurie Dennett's set, Stephen Doncaster's costumes and Beverly Emmons's haunted-house lighting are first-rate. But what you'll most remember about ''The Dresser'' is its stars, who give their blood to prove that all the world can indeed be a stage.