One reason the well-made play went out of fashion was that everything about it was so obvious. In rethinking J.B. Priestley's "An Inspector Calls," director Stephen Daldry has made its almost comic obviousness a virtue.
"Inspector" begins with a group of wealthy, provincial English people celebrating a wedding engagement. Their merrymaking is interrupted by a police inspector, who, with very few questions, manages to expose their guilt in the suicide of a working girl with whom they all, independently, had contact.
Priestley's indictment of the upper class is so predictable and sanctimonious that it is no surprise the play was produced in Moscow a year before its 1946 London premiere. If it were done "straight" now, it would elicit only boredom.
Daldry, however, has had the wit to theatricalize the play so blatantly that at moments where you might be tempted to giggle or smirk, you find yourself rapt in admiration of his magic.
The play begins, for example, with World War II air raid sirens sounding the all clear. An urchin, playing in the rubble, peers behind the splendid red curtain. The accompanying music has a grandeur befitting some J. Arthur Rank melodrama. It is a way of acknowledging the context in which Priestley wrote a play looking back at the smug, insular world of pre-World War I Britain.
The curtain rises majestically, unfolding a Magrittean landscape - ominous clouds (this, like almost all the recent British imports, has made imaginative use of clouds) glower over an elegant, miniature Edwardian townhouse from which the laughter of the dinner party emanates.
When the inspector calls, the walls of the house come apart (a piece of symbolism no less breathtaking for its baldness), and one by one the characters come down off their social pedastal into the real world, where we discover their ugly secrets.
When one of them expresses dismay that his actions will be held up to public shame, the British public itself enters, a dozen citizens whose World War II garb bathed in a warm light evokes the British at their most heroic.
Daldry's ideas require acting in the grand manner, and he gets it from Philip Bosco as a pompous businessman and Rosemary Harris as his snobbish wife. Kenneth Cranham, a man whose heavily bagged but determined eyes suggest some dogged bloodhound, is marvelous as the inspector.
Jane Adams is touching as the only swell with any remorse, and there are appealing performances by Aden Gillett and Marcus D'Amico as cads.
The production does not improve one's impression of the play itself, but it is a stunning piece of theatrical legerdemain.
Rarely has glitzy irrelevance been parlayed more craftily into undeserved success than by Stephen Daldry's ludicrously overheated and pompous staging of J.B. Priestley's cozy socialist thriller "An Inspector Calls," which has been playing in London for two years and has now opened at Broadway's Royale Theater.
Written in 1945 and first given oddly enough in Moscow, this hopefully lacerating play was originally staged in London a year later for the Old Vic, where I saw it with a sterling cast that included Ralph Richardson, Alec Guinness and Margaret Leighton.
Although set in 1912, Priestley's preachy sermon of social responsibility seemed strictly 1945 at the time, and provided a sternly moralistic message to all people of good will to put their weight behind Britain's newly elected Labor government headed by Clement Attlee.
Taking his cue from this, Daldry, who initiated his much-praised but muddleheaded production for Britain's National Theater, has shoved an untouched text into the framework of a 1945 post-blitz setting which recalls something of the atmosphere of John Boorman's nostalgic 1987 movie "Hope and Glory."
There is no reason for this other than offering an excuse for a cute and hydraulically clever bombed-out toy-town setting by Ian MacNeil complete with a large, mute chorus of aggrieved "townspeople."
The brilliant special effects out-Disney Disney, yet this remains a pedestrian, if dramatically overemphatic staging with a naive and spurious look of thoughtful, deconstructed originality.
Priestley has devised a time-play in which a wealthy Edwardian family is interrupted at dinner by the arrival of an eccentric police inspector, who claims he is investigating the suicide of a young working woman.
He shows them all photographs of the victim; it soon becomes apparent that each of them knew her, exploited her, and all bear some responsibility for her death.
After endless ranting and much breast-beating the mysterious inspector departs. Inquiries soon reveal that it was all a hoax. There is no such inspector or any such suicide.
The pampered son and daughter hav ethe guilty grace to be chastened, but the parents and their daughter's fiance instantly worm their way back into their previous smug prosperity.
Then, of course, the phone rings. Just as in Gogol's "The Government Inspector," upon which Priestley's play is a variant, a real inspector is on his way!
The only hold-over from the first National Theater cast - I saw and, in a minority view, cordially disliked the production in London - is Kenneth Cranham who plays the Inspector like an overzealous and shifty Labor MP on the hustings. An excellent Orton actor, he is no Ralph Richardson - he is not even an Alistair Sim who played the role in the movie version.
The rest of the cast is American, and the best performance comes from Jane Adams as the conscience-struck little rich girl, who makes repentance into something quite poignant.
Philip Bosco is splendidly unsurprising as the blustering and orotund self-made businessman, while Rosemary Harris shrills convincingly as his hubristic wife.
"An Inspector Calls" can still be theatrically effective in its old-fashioned fashion - but it doesn't need to be tarted up like a raddled old Duchess.
If there were a society for the preservation and restoration of aging plays, the British director Stephen Daldry would deserve the presidency.
Taking a 1946 potboiler by J. B. Priestley, "An Inspector Calls," he has transformed it into a steadily engrossing drama and, more significantly, one of the more astonishing spectacles on Broadway right now. An equivalent act would be turning a Nash Rambler into a Bentley or a tugboat into a phantom schooner. Against all odds, something that was functional and boxy has been made dark and gleaming and elegant.
Yet another import from London's fertile nonprofit theaters (via the West End), "An Inspector Calls" was unveiled last night at the Royale Theater. It is as much an eye-opener as the triumphant revivals that have preceded it this season, "Carousel" and "Medea." Perhaps even more so. After all, "Carousel" and "Medea" are timeless works of art. Priestley's drama is rooted in old socialist credos and preachy injunctions, inspired partly by the horrors of two world wars, that we all must try to take better care of one another from now on.
The action is set in 1912, but with the help of an exceptional designer, Ian MacNeil, Mr. Daldry has removed the play from its usual Edwardian drawing room and relocated it in a once-and-future landscape. The earth is covered with cobblestones, the brooding sky is slate gray or bilious yellow and the houses of the rich (doll houses, actually) perch above the desolation on stilts. At the center of the stage stands a stone mansion, the home of the Yorkshire factory owner Arthur Birling (Philip Bosco) and his family. All golden bright within, it could be a jewel box. But when the curtain rises, the walls are closed up and we have to peer through the windows, like the urchins and scavengers below, to catch a glimpse of the engagement party unfolding inside.
The festivities are soon interrupted by the arrival of a mysterious inspector (Kenneth Cranham), who wants to question the family members about the suicide of a destitute young woman. All of them, it appears, are implicated in her death, although the threat of a public scandal bothers them considerably more than any wrong they may have done her. In vintage, not to say hoary, mystery-play fashion, the inspector keeps plugging away with the questions until, one by one, the characters crack and confess their role in the affair.
Mr. Daldry, the newest boy wonder of the British theater, has been just as inventive with the detective-story conventions as Mr. MacNeil has been with the set. The inspector is stationed outdoors under a towering lamppost, and the smug family members are obliged to come down from their gilded aeire and submit to the inquest in the rain-soaked bleakness. Mrs. Birling (Rosemary Harris) is allowed a carpet to cushion her step. But before long she is groveling in the filth with the rest of them. Their sullied clothes will soon come to rival their sullied souls.
Contributing to the ominous climate, townsfolk emerge from the clouds of fog to witness, passive and hollow-eyed, the fall of the House of Birling. All the while, Stephen Warbeck's music is busy underscoring critical moments in the drama with rumbles from the bass drum and shrieks from the cello. Then, when the Birlings' alibis have been completely demolished and their moral ignominy exposed, the house itself collapses, lurching forward and spilling its fancy contents onto the ground with a clatter.
If that were all, the evening would certainly be startingly surrealistic and worthy of the gasps it provokes. But Mr. Daldry adds yet another element by giving the intermissionless production the feel of a perverse music-hall entertainment. The proscenium arch of the Royale, which is shedding its imitation gold leaf, looks to have barely made it through the blitz. Some of the planking is coming up. Tucked away in the pit, the four-piece orchestra spits out its dissonance, while the actors, blazingly lighted by Rick Fisher, venture to the edge of the stage now and again and speak their lines directly to the audience.
Mostly, though, it's the performances themselves that explode the conventions of Priestley's well-made dramaturgy and the decorous acting it once fostered. They are emphatic, pitched high, purposely inflated, I think, to match the inflated sense of importance that the Birlings have of themselves. Mr. Daldry is asking the cast to tread a delicate line here. Pushed too far, actors can quickly become vaudevillians. In fact, the usually excellent Mr. Bosco, harrumphing mightily, should be reined in instantly, lest so much huffing and puffing blow the set down before its time.
The others, however, manage the trick of being oversized without being overdone. Wrapped in red velvet and strung with pearls, Ms. Harris is at her imperious best using her perfect dictionto put inferiors in their place, or, when that fails, withering them with civility. As the wastrel son, Marcus D'Amico, and Jane Adams as the coquettish daughter, have the fatuousness of privileged people who haven't thought much about their lot in life. Then a bulldog of a detective obliges them to. Mr. D'Amico discovers the terrible pain of hurting others and Ms. Adams lights up with a passionate social conscience, while Aden Gillett, as her pompous fiance, drops his superior poses and seemingly subtracts a foot from his height. Their remorse is convincing, and thoroughly misleading.
Mr. Cranham, the one holdover from the London cast, is harder to pigeonhole. Most of the time, he's your usual imperturbable investigator in a trench coat, but then he'll suddenly turn on one of the Birlings, push his jowly face in theirs, and you get the brief if distinct impression that he's about to bite. The character is named Goole, as in "ghoul," if that's a clue. It is, sort of. "An Inspector Calls" is one of Priestley's "time" plays, dramas that toy with the usual workings of the clock and leave you with the sense that something vaguely metaphysical might be going on. Let's just say that Mr. Cranham's deftly unsettling inspector is not from Scotland Yard.
The eeriness, in fact, is the salvation of "An Inspector Calls," which can be ponderously didactic in places, insisting, as it does, that the world's riches are inequitably divided and that the little folk are ruthlessly exploited. If we don't mend our ways, Priestley cautions, someone well may mend them for us. Mr. Daldry, however, finds blazingly original stage imagery to support and revitalize the musty platitudes.
It is the playwright's not too surprising perception, for example, that given half a chance, self-centered people are quick to resume their self-centered habits. But it is the director's inspiration to have the Birlings' ruined house rise off the ground, put itself back together and close its walls once again on the rabble, as if nothing had ever disturbed its magnificent exclusivity.
Mr. Daldry is a showman with a conscience.
J.B. Priestley's spooky wartime call for global unity gets an outlandish reading from young director Stephen Daldry and designer Ian MacNeil. Like the season's other Royal National Theater export, "Carousel,""An Inspector Calls" arrives with one star joined to a new cast, along with a freshly minted physical production that swept most of the London critics and awards.
But the Broadway "Inspector"-- despite crystalline performances from a first-rate ensemble -- isn't likely to garner the same unanimity of critical acclaim, and American audiences may not be as forgiving as British patrons of the play's conscientious heavy-handedness. It's an iffy B.O. prospect.
Set in the Yorkshire city of Brumley, the play opens at a party given by mill owner Arthur Birling (Philip Bosco) and wife Sybil (Rosemary Harris) for daughter Sheila (Jane Adams), now engaged to wealthy scion Gerald Croft (Aden Gillett).
The tony doings are interrupted when a police inspector (Kenneth Cranham, repeating from London) arrives at the manse with news that a local woman has ended up at the town infirmary, a gruesome suicide.
A series of interviews with the increasingly uneasy celebrants, who include dissolute Birling son Eric (Marcus D'Amico), reveals that, Agatha Christie-like, everyone is implicated to some extent in the death. But Priestley had more than mystery theater in mind.
The play, set in 1912, begins with Arthur's exhortation that "a man has to look after himself -- you'd think we were all mixed up together." Its strange conclusion commences with the inspector, aptly named Goole, warning that until people realize "we don't live alone, we are members of one society," the world will end in a holocaust of fire, blood and anguish, which of course was pretty much the case in Europe at the time of the play's writing in 1945.
"An Inspector Calls" may originally have looked like a conventional drawing-room play, but Daldry and MacNeil have exploded those conventions in every possible manner.
As the house lights dim, air-raid sirens wail, and pounding, ominous music thunders; a boy climbs up from below stage and seems to lift up the curtain himself, revealing the Birling home in the midst of a torrential downpour. The proscenium of the Royale has been transformed into a peeling, red-paint-and-gold-leaf near-ruin.
The isolated home is a huge doll house on stilts in the middle of a warped, rain-drenched cobblestone plaza; the actors can barely squeeze into the dining room, and most of the action is played down front. All of it conjures a grim, stark contrast to the jollity that is about to come to an abrupt halt.
When Daldry brings on a hungry, haunted-looking crowd to witness the play's end, he acknowledges a debt to Hal Prince, who's spent much of his career framing other people's work with his own social vision. Where another director might underplay the heart-on-sleeve obviousnessthat is the play's chief weakness , Daldry exaggerates everything.
Cranham, red-faced with anger, spins around, jabbing a fat finger at the family or addressing his questions to the audience. Bosco starts out as the cheerful, grain-fed picture of contented capitalism -- he practically looks like a cartoon -- and by the end, only the cheerfulness is gone, replaced by a mean streak. Harris' staginess is allowed full rein as Sybil denies almost to the end her culpability, and the over-the-topness, too, seems of a piece.
Adams, delightful as the g.f. in "I Hate Hamlet," takes on a weightier role with equal finesse; as the daughter who immediately realizes the profound impact of her high-handed impulsiveness, Sheila does as much to hold the mirror up to the rest of the family as Goole does. It's a sad, graceful performance, and the production's sole modifying influence. Aden Gillett, as the fiance, and D'Amico as Sheila's brother, are also fine.
If the dramaturgy is crude (though intermittently very moving), the message of "An Inspector Calls" is as resonant today as it was half a century ago. Yet it's hard to look at this striking production, streamlined to one uninterrupted act, and not think what a chore it would be to sit through a less adventurous staging.
It makes sense for a repertory theater to investigate works like these and lend their best talents to them; if we had a true national theater, we might legitimately be doing the same. But in a commercial venue, "An Inspector Calls" represents an awful lot of time and talent spent making a second-rate work look good and a new director look better. Audiences probably won't be fooled.