Charming, charming, charming.
The spectacle of a New York spinster corresponding over a period of 20 years with a London book seller, the two never meeting, might seem unlikely stuff for an evening of theater. And "84 Charing Cross Road," last night's new play at the Nederlander, does suffer a bit at first from the awkwardness of this premise, but it gradually gains from it to become a gently touching hands-across-the-sea chronicle, sentimental in the best sense of the word.
The fact that it's all perfectly true determines the means of presentation. A modest writer named Helen Hanff, her playwrighting ambitions dashed, gets by during the 1940s and '50s inventing Ellery Queen and other TV scripts ($200 a crack) in a single room, furnished with odds and ends, in an upper West Side brownstone. In the '60s, having landed on the "Hallmark Hall of Fame" show with a script and gotten an advance for another, she moves to a new E. 92d St. studio apartment. But all the while, she's corresponding with an antiquarian shop along London's Charing Cross Road, and with its chief clerk, Frank Doel, in particular.
The lady (Ellen Burstyn), who is seen only by herself stage right in one flat and the next (we learn almost nothing about her personal life, only that she grew up in Philadelphia), is a bookworm, a compulsive seeker after rare volumes, especially works by English writers, but too sedentary a creature to go downtown to Barnes & Noble (the original one) or elsewhere in Manhattan. And, being an Anglophile who has never been abroad, never having had the means to travel, she develops such a voluminous correspondence with Doel - eventually, too, with a couple of others in the shop (Marks & Co.) - that facts about her career and literary preferences become intertwined with facts about Doel's family and his associates as he fills her orders for ridiculously low sums. She always mails paper money, which somehow always gets there, and thus often has, say, a 16-cent or quarter credit toward her next purchase.
In the end, after most of the staff has departed (well, I don't want to give that away) and after countless postponed trips, Hanff does get to her dream city and to the bookshop. In the meantime, we have become devoted to this pair and to their lively discussions - by letters, of course - about Donne, Blake, Landor, Pepys ("Peppies," to her), the Vulgate, book bindings, the fine quality of 19th-century paper, and other matters. For her part, Hanff arranges to send food gifts, during rationing in Britain, for reasonable sums by way of Denmark.
So what the play amounts to is one happy, divided family punctuated by snatches of song and both Christmas and New Year's Eve merriment during which the solitary Hanff drinks from her ever-present gin bottle.
Although Burstyn is wonderfully winning as the avid collector (she does throw books away, though, once she has read them and knows she will never reread them), the evening's prize performance is given by Joseph Maher as Doel in a remarkably contained yet expressive portrayal. It is, in fact, flawless. In addition to Burstyn, her heroine so unwilling to budge that she won't follow TV to Hollywood in the late '50s, and the superb Maher, there are attractive small bits by Jo Henderson (both as a mousy clerk and rather flamboyant friend of Hanff's writing the latter from London), Ellen Newman and a handful of other bookshop employees.
Roose-Evans has staged the piece with a light touch in Oliver Smith's multiple set, emphasizing the atmospheric old bookshop, though perhaps not giving it its full dusty due. Pearl Somner's clothes and Marc B. Weiss' lighting are apt throughout.
"84 Charing Cross Road," then, is a love story, one about a woman (now in her '60s) in love with books, with the land they have sprung from, and, in a cocky, often casual and slangy, but sometimes amusingly sharp manner, the little shop of her dreams. It is a lovable piece of work.
Make no mistake about it, 84 Charing Cross Road, which opened last night at the Nederlander Theater, is a wildly unlikely play. Not in its story - likely enough to the point of the commonplace and beyond - but in its basic dramatic material.
It is a series of letters. Aha! Love letters, I hear you mentally note. No - not love letters. Business letters. Letters written over a period of 20 years from a struggling Manhattan freelance writer, bent on educational improvement, to a second-hand bookshop in London. And, of course, the replies.
We all have heard the one about actors being so secure in their craft that they can endow the art of telephone-directory-reading with some measure of genius. In 84 Charing Cross Road, the two enormously gifted leading actors, a radiant Ellen Burstyn and an effulgent Joseph Maher, came close to having to do just that - incandescently.
Of course, I am being unfair to the script which, unexpectedly does have a certain dramatic interest, and quite cunningly exploits, massages and assuages our various tastes for intellectual snobbery, uncommon common sense, Anglophilia of the more engagingly rabid virus, and sentimentality. For a book list - it runs a helluva gamut!
The show is now in its second year in London's West End, and this sleeked-up, improved, imported version could well prove just as popular on Broadway - it touches a surprising number of emotional bases.
But if it dies it will reflect mightily on the elegance and indeed distinction brought to the play's fragile commonplaces by Miss Burstyn and, perhaps particularly, Maher.
The heroine is Helene Hanff - and this is her story. In 1948, Miss Hanff, eking out a life in a ground floor studio apartment of a Greenwich Village brownstone, sees an advertisment in the Saturday Review.
It is from an antique bookseller in London's Charing Cross Road. The show was Marks & Co., and it offered to obtain old books. Miss Hanff sent in a list - starting the correspondence.
She dealt with the chief assistant at Marks & Co., Frank Doel - and while she never mastered the "bilingual arithmetic" occasioned by the currency exchange rates, she was soon interjecting a warmly cute peronal note into her letters, which made them something of a curiosity in the crusty, musty world of English book-selling.
Miss Hanff and Marks & Co. became breezily personal, transatlantic pen-pals, until Frank Doel's death in 1971, when the firm closed down.
Miss Hanff found herself encouraged to write a book memorializing the correspondence, which she called 84 Charing Cross Road, and was duly published with some success in New York and London.
James Roose-Evans, the American-oriented director of the Hampstead Theater Club, adapted it for the stage - and the rest is history, to which a further chapter was added last night.
The difficulty of 84 Charing Cross Road as a play is simply put: nothing happens. The only dramatic tension generated is whether or not Miss Hanff will save up enough money to visit the literary London she worships from afar, and the declining health of Frank Doel.
Yet this odd, distanced intimacy does exert a quirky charm. Even its unexpectedness is appealing, its unpretentious bookishness will even amuse people who have never heard of Sir Arthur Quiller Couch (who inadvertently started the whole play!) and Miss Hanff's candor is sometimes very good value with a line or judgment.
She can be exasperatingly mid-cult fancy, if you know what I mean. But her heart is in the right place and her mind is on the side of the angels.
Roose-Evans has repeated but improved his London staging. The text has been trimmed and tautened. Oliver Smith has contributed a new setting that while infinitely less authentic (the London version did look like the actual bookshop as I recall it) is also infinitely more attractive, and lends itself to a dazzling conjuring trick at the end, which is the play's only big surprise.
As for the acting, this is a distinct improvement over the cast - not the original - I saw in London last season. Miss Burstyn is indeed burstin' all over with warmth, sagacity, orneriness and the sassiness of a literary-minded Erma Brombeck. A glistening, accurately judged performance.
Maher, however, probably has the better role, and he carries it off with an enviably off-hand panache. He has the courage to be corny - a prime virtue also of his author - and even his double-takes are marvels of contrivance. He, unlike Miss Burstyn, also ages convincingly, and makes a real character out of this booklover tradesman.
The rest of the cast, all neatly stacked in the background, appears impeccably English, in accent and appearance.
So a mild evening, but a pleasant one, full of pleasant little asides, insights and quiddities.
After seeing ''84 Charing Cross Road,'' the tiny divertissement that opened at the Nederlander Theater last night, you don't feel as if you've been to the theater, but to afternoon tea. For nearly two hours, two fine actors, Ellen Burstyn and Joseph Maher, stand at either side of the stage and recite good-natured, sporadically amusing, utterly innocuous letters that were once written between a struggling New York writer named Helene Hanff and a London antiquarian book dealer named Frank Doel. Although Miss Burstyn does take the radical step of crossing from her side of the stage to Mr. Maher's at play's end, this is mostly an evening of sedentary gentility.
To put it another way, ''84 Charing Cross Road'' is a staged reading that's been tricked-up into a Broadway production by the casting of a star and by the erection of an imposing Oliver Smith set. Fans of its source material - Miss Hanff's slight and breezy epistolary memoir of 1970 - will probably delight in the faithfulness with which the adapter, James Roose-Evans, has brought it to the stage. Audiences in search of a play offering genuine emotional or intellectual stimulation or even steady laughter are likely to find that this sketch fails to satisfy, and that its modest non-theatrical charms wear thin fast.
Being ungrateful for this trifle is, I realize, like being against Christmas. Its subject is the love of literature. The self-schooled Miss Hanff, a would-be playwright turned television scenarist, wrote her letters to order second-hand books from Mr. Doel and his firm of Marks & Co. over a two-decade span ending in 1969. Those books were the best - from Plato to Woolf - and Miss Hanff cherished their ''soft vellum and heavy cream-colored pages.'' Mr. Doel responded to her requests with alacrity and would have a seizure if his demanding customer were mistakenly sent, say, an abridged Pepys diary instead of the complete text.
But, a few mild digressions about John Donne aside, the talk in this play is not literary; it's about the quaint, bygone rituals of personalized mail-order commerce. If its heroine were ordering duck shoes from L.L. Bean, ''84 Charing Cross Road'' would not be much different - though it might have to be retitled ''Freeport, Maine 04033.'' All that would be lost would be the Anglophilic and bibliophilic cachet, and that loss would bring a welcome gain in unpretentiousness. The vacuous lip service this play pays to the joys of England's literary heritage is no more than fancy name-dropping. ''84 Charing Cross Road'' is high-minded but resolutely nonintellectual - a play for those who get more pleasure out of owning handsome old books than reading them.
The superficial plot that strings together the book orders is a platonic version of Miss Burstyn's last Broadway vehicle, ''Same Time, Next Year'': a cross-cultural affection develops between the two correspondents over the years. Miss Hanff is a sassy eccentric, eager to ''puncture that proper British reserve'' of her book dealer. She succeeds quickly, with situation-comedy results. Helene and Frank drop the formalities and use each other's first names; they share holiday presents and family news, happy occasions and sad ones; they take to using the colloquial expressions of each other's native form of English. But they never do meet and have a scene together.
With imagination, ''84 Charing Cross Road'' could have offered more than its saccharine hands-across-the-sea sentiments and leather-binding fetishism. Why couldn't Mr. Roose-Evans have dramatized the characters in his heroine's life, even if he had to fictionalize to do so? We never learn why Helene Hanff is presented as a near-dipsomaniac, or why she calls her bookseller ''the only soul alive who understands me.'' Does she have family, lovers, a psychiatrist? And why are Frank's much-talked-about wife and children kept offstage even as we watch six other actors traipse through Marks & Co. in forgettable walk-on roles? Though it may work on the printed page to see the two characters frozen at their respective desks, the method looks like a lazy contrivance in the theater.
About the most energetic change that Mr. Roose-Evans has made in Miss Hanff's book is the removal of the comma that followed the street number in her title. He also emphasizes the calendar-marking historical events and adds a shamelessly tear-jerking final monologue, featuring a prized rubber duck, that may make your skin crawl. The adapter's staging is a lulling - some may call it civilized - game of theatrical ping-pong that sends us rhythmically back and forth between Marks & Co. and Miss Hanff's various New York dwellings.
Because of the play's constricted form, both lead actors face the trap of sinking into cute stand-up routines. Miss Burstyn, to this fan's amazement, falls into it. She is, as always, a forceful presence, even with a dangling cigarette, bohemian clothes and ratty wigs. Her timing of her caustic one-liners is expert - maybe too expert. With excessive hand-gestures and winks, she sometimes indicates just where she'd like us to laugh or applaud. It would help if she had better jokes - too much is made of her dental problems and mispronunciation of British names - and could play to another actor instead of some indeterminate point in the balcony.
Long a specialist at portraying fuddy-duddy Englishmen, Mr. Maher is in top form: pink-faced and silver-haired, he is so stiff-upperlipped that he seems to be sucking on a lemon in the early scenes. Later, he is a warm and wooly English clerk of a benign Dickensian sort - and, finally, a weary old man who ages more effectively without cosmetic aids than his co-star does with them. You may well enjoy seeing what Mr. Maher is up to here, but the time will pass faster if you bring along a good book.