It's not until the final moonstruck scene of "The Marriage of Figaro" that director Andrei Serban allows Mozart to enter, and then with his glorious overture. An inspired stroke for introducing the masquerade, the commedia dell'arte foolery in which the play's conflicts are resolved. But it does drive home for us what we've been missing throughout the rest of the evening, during which not a note of this peerless operatic masterpiece is heard.
For Andrei Serban, who directed last night's Circle in the Square production of the Beaumarchais comedy which Mozart transformed and sublimated with his score, hasn't had sufficient faith in the play to let it stand on its own, as Jonathan Miller did in his memorable London production of the rarely-seen work a decade ago. Instead, he has broadened the comedy with a Cherubino on roller skates, a pair of skateboarding guards and other devices.
Mostly, Serban seems to have been influenced by Peter Brook's startling 1971 production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." The stage is bathed in while light, and costumes, bits of scenary and rear wall are also white, relieved only by a rose here and a red ribbon later on. But while "Dream" is familiar enough to stand up to, and perhaps even shine in such tranformation, the Beaumarchais play is almost totally unfamiliar to theater-goers. Yet it is a delightful comedy in its own right.
It is finally allowed that right when we get to the later scenes and both costumes and lights change, and we eventually come to Figaro's great soliloquy, trimmed in the opera to Figaro's discourse on women, but delivered here in full, the masterly commentary on society is skillfully presented by Anthony Heald from a swing he manipulates with admirable dexterity above the gray playing area.
The cast, Heald and the rest, is a good one, fully capable of doing Beaumarchais justice if freed of Serban's distractingly arty, pretentious touches. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio is a bewitching Susanne, Figaro's bride-to-be; Caitlin Clarke, playing the opera's pants role of the love-smitten Cherubino, handles the part ideally and prettily, too, when "disguised" as a girl; and Christopher Reeve is handsome and stuffily amusing as Count Almaviva, who would exercise his previously rejected droit du seigneur with Susanne. Dana Ivey, handsomely costumed throughout, makes what she can of the forlorn Countess Almaviva, a role so enriched in sympathy by Mozart, particulartuly in the exquisite "Dove sono" aria.
Other tidy bits are contributed by Louis Zorich as Dr. Bartholo and Carol Teitel as Marceline, who would wed Figaro only to learn she and Bartholo are the lad's parents. But while the role of the music master, Bazile, is pure Italian farce, James Cahill is made to overdo it as a lip-smacking idiot in a wheelchair.
Richard Peaslee has contributed a charming musical background composed largely of seguidilla and habanera rhythms, but is less successful with his tunes for Cherubino's song outbursts.
Richard Nelson's adaptation is acute enough, even if it does rely too often on contemprary slang expressions, including a Henny Youngmanism, and, assuming that Serban exercised a strong hand in deciding on the look of the thing, Beni Montresor has designed the show most attractively.
The above reservations aside, see it by all means, for it may very likely be the only chance you'll have to see the play proper in this lifetime.
Figaro without Mozart! It sounds like a flute without magic, corned beef without beef, or at best, decaffeinated coffee.
Yet, be fair, The Marriage of Figaro was a play - a revolutionary and controversial play at that - by Beaumarchais before it was an opera by Mozart and his nimble liberettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte.
And a play it still is, being given a rare and welcome New York airing, starting officially last night at the uptown Circle in the Square, in a staging by Andrei Surban, Christopher Reeve, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Dana Ivey.
The curious thing is how much alike are the play and the opera, and then, by almost the same token, how vitally different they are. And the difference is not to be contained in the nutshell of Mozart's blithe fortuitous, for its premiere was the same year as the French Revolution. The opera, very understandably, skates over it.
But this story of a nobleman's valet - a servant in the 18th century, with 19th century aspirations, trying to better his lot, while keeping his girl out of the lecherous grasp of his still feudally inclined master - held a specific meaning for its time that we can only glimpse through the grimed binoculars of history.
Of course the play is a farce, or at least somewhere midway between a farce and comedy. The situation in which the characters embroil themselves, behind locked closets and arboreal groves, are farcical enough.
Yet Beaumarchais has given these stock characters - lecherous Count, wronged Countess, resourceful servant, cheeky maid - the real lineaments of heartbreak's face. These were the possibilities Mozart made immortal.
The play has not been given here since Jean Louis Barrault and his Marigny troupe did it in French at the City Center about 20 years ago.
Jonathan Miller staged it - very politically - at Britain's National Theater a decade or so ago, and apparently inspired the very talented American playwright Richard Nelson to undertake a new and emphatically idiomatic adaptation for the director Andrei Serban.
This Nelson/Serban Figaro, designed by Beni Montresor, was first given at the Tyrone Guthrie in Minnapolis three years ago, with Robert Dorfman and David Warrilow.
i liked it in Minneapolis - it went with heroically operatic zest in that spacious auditorium - and I like it here, while being far from certain that the new star casting has added anything much in radiance.
At times, particularly in the first act, it seems a little like a movie with the soundtrack lost, an impression emphasized by Serban pushing the stylized acting so much towards the silent cinema and cartoon.
Nelson's dialogue proves resolutely contemporary, and Montresor's setting, here realized primarily as a black mirrored floor fringed by a glittering horseshoe of lamps, and his white-on-white modern dress, add to the air of balletic charade.
The charade manner is maintained in many of Serban's devices - characters on roller-skates and skate-boards, a supermarket cart, a vintage car (white, of course), and even an inventively Fragonard-style swing.
Reality is intended to blend with fantasy at the end, as Figaro, acrobatically poised on the swing, declaims his personal bill of rights, and the characters don 18th century dress, chiefly black, for the masquerade.
Now we even hear the overture to Mozart's Figaro, in place of the more mundane Richard Peaslee music supporting the play up untill then.
The performances are very much geared to Serban's concept. Of the minor roles, only Louis Zorich takes the chance to make something of Dr. Bartholo, although Carol Teitel as Marceline, and James Cahill as an exaggeratedly lubricious Bazile, do well enough.
The stars also stick to the director's courses. Reeve is perhaps too handsome, and almost certainly too young, for Count Almaviva, although he shows a neat sense of humor. Miss Mastrantonio, all piquant nubility, is a nicely saucy Suzanne.
Miss Ivey's Countess seems to lack some depth of suppressed passion, but probably only Mozart's music can now bring that out.
Heald's Figaro, the key character to the play even more than in the opera, is resourceful and amusing, and he does manage to give the impression of a modern man breaking out of the prison of tradition. Yet he is still a little uncertain in style and vocal mannerism.
The play, for all the Montresor chic and the ministrations of Serban, remains a curiosity. A curiosity worth the occasional staging, but not a classic play for all seasons, like so many in the Moliere repertory.
And this version is really little more than drama history - with a glance at the social landscape - without tears and with a few laughs.
Take three of New York's most stylish comic actors, mate them with a classic play that's ideally suited to their talents, and what is the result? Not necessarily what you might hope or think. The Circle in the Square's new production of ''The Marriage of Figaro'' is the barely living proof, if any were needed, that even performers as fetching as Anthony Heald, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Dana Ivey - or a playwright of the caliber of Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais - stand little chance against a director with his own set of self-aggrandizing priorities. As staged by Andrei Serban, this ''Figaro'' is first and last the Andrei Serban show; its subject is the director's artifice rather than that of Beaumarchais's civilization. The evening is most likely to be enjoyed by audiences with an undying nostalgia for avant-garde gimmicks of 10, even 20, years ago, as well as by those who prefer a ''Figaro'' more suggestive of the Three Stooges than Mozart.
Mr. Serban's principal visual conceits, competently designed by Beni Montresor and usually slapped arbitrarily onto the text, include all-white costumes (changed to all-black for the ''darker'' conclusion), anachronistic props (a power saw), a mirrory Mylar setting (high-tech art reflects life, you see) and various forms of mechanical locomotion. Indeed, one might say that in this ''Figaro,'' Peter Brook's ''Midsummer Night's Dream'' (or a vulgar approximation of it) meets the roller derby: Those performers who don't glide on skates enter via skateboard, wheelbarrow, wheelchair, bicycle, supermarket shopping cart or motorized antique car. The accompanying incidental music, by sometime Brook composer Richard Peaslee, attempts to arouse the spirit of silent film comedies. Like the incessant sound effects, lighting cues and bits of fussy physical business, the score merely upstages the actors and their lines.
The lines are not always Beaumarchais's in Richard Nelson's adaptation, in which cute updatings like ''She's crazy about me!'' or ''He's my man!'' are de rigueur. So unwilling are Mr. Serban and Mr. Nelson to let the play speak for itself that those unfamiliar with ''Figaro'' in its original or operatic forms will have difficulty cutting through all this production's visual and oral debris to follow the convoluted plot. And that plot, a farcical chain of interlocking shaggy boudoir stories set in and around a Spanish castle, is essential to the French author's egalitarian critique of his society at revolution's brink. In telling of the obstacles and intrigues that precede the wedding of the valet Figaro (Mr. Heald) and the chambermaid Suzanne (Miss Mastrantonio), Beaumarchais mounted a bitter attack on the aristocratic prerogatives that continued to thwart the less privileged during the late 18th-century death throes of the ancient regime.
Mr. Serban has no more regard for the biting politics of the work than he does for its delicate stylistic finesse or farcical intricacies. When the time comes for Mr. Heald to deliver the hero's famous Act V monologue indicting the oppressive inequities of his class-stratified world, the actor's impassioned performance and his outraged invective must fight a losing battle against another gimmick: Figaro recites the speech while riding on a swing. This spectacle comes shortly after a sequence in which some of the cast's least appetizing members perform a bump-and-grind striptease to a tinny recording of Mozart's ''Figaro'' overture, as played on a contemporary boom box.
When Mr. Serban actually must stage Beaumarchais's own comic scenes - which often involve hidden lovers, eavesdroppers and disguises - he seems incapable of mastering the geometrical, precisely timed choreography that makes physical farce funny. Sliding screens, chairs and beds are all sloppily deployed, as are the periodic jack-in-the-box appearances by a band of peasants and the occasional invasions of actors into the auditorium. To my eyes, only two of Mr. Serban's ideas illuminate rather than mutilate the play - an early moment in which a tape measure summons up the space of a nuptial bed and a closing image in which the Countess's red ribbon forms an almost umbilical bond between her and that adolescent fount of puppy love, the page Cherubino.
With the happy exception of the actress Caitlin Clarke, whose appearance as the male Cherubino is one of Mr. Serban's few bows to tradition, most of the supporting players are as coarse as the production: Louis Zorich (Dr. Bartholo), Carol Teitel (Marceline), Debbie Merrill (Fanchette), William Duell (Antonio) and, especially, James Cahill as an apparently cunnilingus-obsessed Bazile. As the imperious, narcissistic Count, Christopher Reeve tries so hard to lighten up - he even affects a Cary Grant accent - that one is sad to see his efforts at clowning sink with the finality of pure lead.
The three leads can be faulted only for wasting their gifts and hard work. The edgy Mr. Heald, who often races about in a state of hyperventilation here, would be a winning scamp and rebel in a sounder ''Figaro,'' and so, under other circumstances, might Miss Ivey unveil her full range of comic ditsiness as the Countess. As Suzanne, Miss Mastrantonio remains an actress of breathtaking poise and good humor in search of her step-out leading role. The most skillful roller-skater, however, is Miss Clarke, whose Cherubino sails by with a levity and speed that the rest of the evening knows not.