As the House Judiciary Committee might put it, it's not about sex.
Yes, Nicole Kidman generates enough erotic energy to raise the dead of two continents. Yes, the play is made up of 10 interlinked sexual encounters. And yes, there is some brief and actually rather chaste nudity.
But what "The Blue Room" shows is before and after. We see 10 characters working their way up to sex. We see them when it's over. We watch the change and note the hypocrisy, the folly, the loneliness.
And, though it may be the corniest chatup line in the book, the real revelation is not Nicole Kidman's lithe and willowy body, but her mind. What shines through most powerfully is her brilliant theatrical intelligence, the speed and subtlety with which she adopts and adapts five very different characters.
"The Blue Room" is David Hare's updated take on Arthur Schnitzler's 1900 play "Reigen," usually called "La Ronde" after the 1950 film version.
On the surface, Hare follows the original rather closely. Each sketch includes one of the lovers from the previous one, but this time with a new partner. Together, the episodes form a cross section of society, from the bedraggled waiflike prostitute to the filthy rich aristocrat.
But as well as shifting from the beginning of the century to the end and from Vienna to London, Hare makes a much more profound change.
In the original, each new partner is played by a new actor. Here, Kidman and her terrific co-star, Iain Glen, take all the roles.
This apparently small change actually transforms the play. It makes it smaller, more intimate, less political and more psychological. There are, in this process, both losses and gains.
What's lost is the hard edge of social criticism. The scenes that lay bare the snobbery and crassness of a tight, class-bound world especially the early encounter between a student and a servant work least well.
On the other hand, Hare is able to play with the notion that Kidman and Glen are, in a sense, the same person from scene to scene. He suggests, in effect, that we perform different roles and take on different personalities depending on who we are with.
This allows for some witty reflections on all kinds of playacting, not least the theater itself. The show is able to send itself up and to tease us with images of a ridiculously self-important playwright and a sexy actress who inspires wild fantasies among the men in the audience.
The great pay-off in all of this is that it plays to Nicole Kidman's strengths as a comedienne.
Anyone who's seen her in "To Die For" already knows that she has a superb talent for black comedy. Here, she deploys it to dazzling effect.
What she presents is not raw sexuality.
It is sex sliced open to expose the desperation, the cruelty, the emptiness, the vulnerability. Sex seasoned with the sharp tang of lies and self-deception and soaked with the sorrow and hilarity of human pretensions.
Kidman is well-matched with Glen, a Scottish actor who forms the solid core around which she weaves her elegant variations.
Glen acts as tuning fork and lightning conductor, always setting the right note, always earthing Kidman's erotic charge in a carefully defined reality.
Sam Mendes' direction provides the perfect context. The pace is rapid but never rushed. The movement is clear and unfussy. The tone is precisely as it should be: sympathetic but detached.
It all makes for a funny, intelligent and razor-sharp satire that strips bare not just the follies of the flesh but also the delusions of desire itself.
Who said sex has been banned from Midtown? Disney schmizney. At the Cort Theatre on 48th Street, gorgeous movie star Nicole Kidman and handsome British actor Iain Glen are taking it off and getting it on in the hottest play in town, David Hare's 'The Blue Room'' - a free adaptation of Viennese playwright Arthur Schnitzler's 1900 work, 'Reigen.''
The play, which made a sensation this fall when it premiered at London's Donmar Warehouse, consists of 10 sketches depicting a daisy chain of sexual encounters between five women and five men. At the end, the last man links up with the first woman.
In most productions of 'Reigen'' (better known by its French title, 'La Ronde,'' due to a once-scandalous 1950 film version by Max Ophuls), 10 performers play the parts. Here, Kidman and Glen enact all 10.
Kidman is brilliant throughout, using her hips, her legs, the set of her head, the purr of her voice, every ounce of her sveltely voluptuous body to get across not just allure but the specific attitudes of all five women to their bodies and their lives.
Iain Glen, too, proves a very smart and winning performer. He gets the juice and social position of each of his characters.
Each encounter between them begins with small talk, builds to a blackout during which sex takes place - the exact time of each sex act is flashed on stage, producing many a laugh - and then features some postcoital chatter.
David Hare sets the action in 'one of the great cities of the world in the present day,'' but the social types and accents could come from nowhere but London. And though two characters do dance to the Elvis songs 'Treat Me Nice'' and 'Love Me Tender,'' Hare's London is a place with little time for niceness or tenderness.
The play starts off with the low and humble, as a hooker and a cabbie go at it in the street, after which the cabbie meets a Swedish au pair in a disco.
We move up in class when the au pair mates with the student son of her employers. He's told her not to call him 'sir'' ('Those days are gone''), but afterwards he treats her so condescendingly that she sarcastically reverts to that 'sir.''
The student is next seen at a rendezvous with a married woman, played by Kidman with comic panache in raincoat, scarf and shades. 'The press in this country,'' she explains, 'they have no values.''
The student is so excited he's at first impotent (Glen is particularly funny when displaying the many faces of male vanity). His lady returns home to her politician hubby - a familiar Hare villain preaching family values, sexism and Tory meanness to the poor. Kidman is deliciously dry as she lies in bed listening to her pompous spouse spouting oft-heard platitudes.
The pol is having it off with a coke-snorting model of 17. Their sex together is lurid but can't be discussed here. Brimming with male possessiveness and obsessiveness, the pol wants to set up the model in a flat for his exclusive use. 'I'm offering you a life of your own, independence, isn't that what women want?''
He mentions in this context the issue of 'hygiene.'' Disease, which knows no class distinctions, is a key subtext in 'Reigen,'' in which syphilis is always an unspoken threat. Today's grimmer STDs lurk somewhere in every moment of 'The Blue Room.''
Theater folk are always amusing on stage, and the next pair - a vain, hyperkinetic playwright and a throaty, bossy, superstitious actress-diva - is irresistible. In around here, we get to see a lot of Kidman and all of Glen. We see all, or almost all, of bodies, but there's very little stripping of soul among these folk, for whom sex is a matter of vanity, power and persona.
During each darkened sex scene the noise of a crackling wire is heard - a symbol of the Hare view of human connections as mechanical and short-circuited.
'The Blue Room'' ends weakly with an unconvincing, umbrella-toting aristocrat moving from the actress to the whore who started off the proceedings.
The director is Sam Mendes, whose revival of 'Cabaret'' already put on display his itch to stylize, theatricalize and brutalize human relations. Mark Thompson's geometrical set is a big box outlined in neon and lit in lurid blues and reds; minimal pieces of furniture - a sink, say, or a bed - emerge to characterize the scenes.
This Schnitzler adaptation, while good electric fun, is minor Hare, nowhere near so successful as his triumphant version of Chekhov's 'Ivanov'' staged at Lincoln Center last year - or his play about Oscar Wilde, 'The Judas Kiss,'' on Broadway earlier this year.
A key idea in the Schnitzler play was that sexual couplings unite all the levels of society normally kept apart by the class system. This is a theme very much to the taste of Hare, for whom Britain's class system is what kids and dogs were to W.C. Fields - an object of unsleeping rancor.
But these snapshots of London do not have the eerie power of the Viennese original.
A distinct chill emanates from the hottest show on Broadway.
''The Blue Room,'' the David Hare play that New Yorkers would seemingly sacrifice their firstborn to get into, opened last night at the Cort Theater for a 12-week run with an advance sale topping $4 million and all but the tiniest percentage of its tickets spoken for.
How, really, could it have been otherwise, with its promised catnip cocktail of sex, culture and celebrity? Not to mention such drum-beating phenomena as last week's Newsweek cover, with the show's star, Nicole Kidman, in a sultrier-than-thou pose, and drooling advance notices from London, where the production originated. One phrase, from a review in The Daily Telegraph of London, has already attached itself to the show like a sandwich board: ''pure theatrical Viagra.''
Yet those who take their seats expecting a highbrow equivalent of a blue movie (remember ''Emmanuelle''?) may wind up donning their overcoats. Blue, in Mr. Hare's reworking of ''La Ronde,'' Arthur Schnitzler's fabled portrait of love as an erotic relay race in turn-of-the-century Vienna, is a cool color, a shiver-making shade signifying, if not exactly nothing, then the loneliness, emptiness and futility of human encounters.
Blue is what you see, in the words of a song in the play, when you step aside from life and realize that ''the earth looks kind of circular and hollow.'' Accordingly, the metaphoric room of the title, given fluidly changing life by the set designer Mark Thompson, has no need of an asbestos lining. The carnal couplings among the play's 10 characters, all dexterously played by Ms. Kidman, the Australian-born movie star, and the English stage actor Iain Glen, ignite a few ephemeral sparks but no roaring flames. Each coital vignette ends in an exasperated but philosophical shrug in the soulless neon glow of Hugh Vanstone's lighting.
A shrug, and an occasional worldly chuckle, is pretty much all that ''The Blue Room'' elicits. As staged by Sam Mendes, the fast-rising director behind the hit revival of ''Cabaret,'' this 100-minute, intermissionless evening is a deft, efficient and sometimes amusing piece of work. Its thematic thrust is so self-evident, and so familiar, as to preclude lively post-theater debate, and it doesn't stir you emotionally. The show is best appreciated as a range-stretching exercise for actors. It is not unlike a darker version of Neil Simon's comedies set in a single hotel suite.
That one of the performers is Ms. Kidman, the wife of Tom Cruise and the star of the films ''Practical Magic'' and (most memorably) ''To Die For,'' has much to do, of course, with what has made ''The Blue Room'' a must-see event. Theater ghouls who thrive on watching big stars from another medium stumble onstage have nothing to dine out on here.
Ms. Kidman gives a winningly accomplished performance, shifting accents and personae with an assured agility that never stoops to showing off or grandstanding. It is also a performance that obviates prurience, despite the fact that she often wears very little and at one point, only briefly, nothing at all. (And yes, as one of Mr. Glen's characters observes, feasting on the vision of the nude Ms. Kidman, she has nothing at all to be ashamed of.) Her roles range from a Cockney streetwalker to a Continental au pair girl, from a teen-age American model to a grande dame of the theater. Her comic timing is effortless, and she provides the evening with its biggest laugh. That comes when the coked-out model responds to a lover's question as to whether his particular brand of sexual stimulation satisfies her. Her dazed answer: ''I don't know what you're doing.''
She also generates the play's only glimmers of real pathos, letting her face fleetingly betray an irritation that shades into despair when her characters realize that the expectation of sex is as good as sex gets. ''It would have been better on the bench,'' says the prostitute, after a brusque copulation on a riverside quay, with a mixture of defiance and forlornness. That, of course, is Mr. Hare's main point, that sex would always have been better somewhere else, at some other time, with another person; erotic satisfaction is a chimera, the elusive quarry of an eternal and fruitless hunt.
The male characters, being more intellectual than the women here, give fuller voice to this poignant if less than original theory, especially the foppish, self-infatuated playwright and the wistful, intellectual aristocrat of the concluding scenes. Mr. Glen has the harder row to hoe of the two stars, since the men of ''The Blue Room'' tend to be blind and fatuous, swaggering macho jokes with little redeeming self-consciousness.
But this actor, who leaned toward caricature when I saw him in London, has definitely improved, modulating his performance in welcome ways. There's little depth in any of his portrayals, but that may be built into the quick-sketch nature of the play. Like Ms. Kidman, he is comely and willowy, and he gamely performs an adroit cartwheel in the altogether.
That moment isn't especially titillating, but then ''The Blue Room'' isn't a titillating play. Though the actors work well together, there's little erotic chemistry between them; you never feel that in any of their incarnations, they are truly lusting for each other. This is a work, after all, in which the exact time it takes to perform each of the play's acts of copulation is projected in a supertitle, a witty touch that palls by the evening's end. That's what sex comes down to here: a quantifiable, mechanical activity that doesn't, according to the evidence at hand, even seem especially pleasurable.
Despite Ms. Kidman's presence, ''The Blue Room'' isn't glamorous either. There is none of the visual sumptuousness, set off by swirling waltzes and equally swirling camera movement, of the famous French film version of ''La Ronde'' by Max Ophuls.
In a sense, Mr. Hare comes closer than Ophuls did to the tone of Schnitzler's original play, originally titled ''Reigen'' (''Round Dance''), and not intended by its author for public performance. Schnitzler, a doctor as well as a writer, cast a clinical eye on the delusions of the society he inhabited. But in mixing members of different classes in a rigidly stratified Vienna into a shifting waltz of desire, he illuminated the plaintiveness of high but vain hopes for something better in life, for love as a transformational force.
In Mr. Hare's universe, those hopes have been bleached out by the sexual and social revolutions of the succeeding decades. Dashed expectations have always been this playwright's specialty, and in works like ''Plenty'' and ''Skylight,'' he has brought an angry, vivifying passion to the subject. In ''The Blue Room,'' however, his characters stride onto the sexual playing field all too aware of the rules of a no-win game.
This means that they never seem to be risking very much, even in terms of what one character delicately labels ''hygiene.'' (AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases are not a topic of conversation.) People get bored or vaguely anxious, but they're all wearing too much psychic armor to be bruised anymore; disappointment is a donnee.
In only one of the scenes, in which the feckless model and her politician lover pop one mood-altering pill too many, do things threaten to get nasty. Ms. Kidman and Mr. Glen are at their strongest in this vignette, growing ever more animalistic in ways that suggest that passion can indeed push people into dangerous terrain. It's a startling, uncomfortable moment, and it gives off a quality that nothing else in the evening does: spontaneous life.
Otherwise, everything remains in control in ''The Blue Room,'' from its jokes (occasionally a shade too obvious) at its characters' expense to its calculated flashes of nudity. The entire evening is not unlike Ms. Kidman's much-discussed body: smooth, pale and slender.
Some 10 characters pass through "The Blue Room," copulating like there's no tomorrow, but for all the steamy sexual traffic onstage, watching the play is a chilly, empty experience. David Hare's surprisingly wan adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler's "La Ronde" arrives on Broadway after a tidal wave of publicity surrounding its lissome young star, the fabulously glamorous, famously espoused Nicole Kidman. (When was the last time the star of a Broadway play made the cover of Cosmo -- er, I mean Newsweek? Give up? So do I.) But the box office dynamo the play has become can't disguise the fact that it's an aesthetic non-event, an anticlimax of proportions inevitably commensurate with its avalanche of advance publicity.
One notes an irony: At the last turn of the century, when the play was written, it was considered too dangerous to be published and later inspired police action; on the cusp of the next, the text has become virtually insignificant, lost in the swirl of celebrity hype that has surrounded the production. Play? What play? Draw your own conclusions about the decline of culture; sellout audiences aren't likely to care. They've come to see a star, and they will.
To the point, then: Kidman is indeed an exquisite beauty of a kind it's impossible not to watch. She commands attention with her presence, her luminous fair skin glowing entrancingly against Mark Thompson's neon-blue background. But the encomiums laid at her feet by the press in London, where Sam Mendes' chic production first opened at the Donmar Warehouse, have probably done her a disservice. While her performance is always watchable (she plays five roles, as all sentient beings no doubt now know), Kidman is not yet a stage actress of sure or subtle technique.
Her acting is sometimes touching, generally efficient and superficial, occasionally amateurish. It seems fussier than it did in London, with much fluttering of hands and girlish pouting. Playing the actress, strangely, she hits a low ebb, doing a silly, grandiose Tallulah Bankhead impersonation; her prostitute, by contrast, is the most quietly affecting.
On film, Kidman can communicate depths that sometimes go beyond the texts she's given (notably in "To Die For"); onstage she doesn't, and it's too bad, because that's just what this play needs. Hare's version of Schnitzler's roundelay of sexual encounters is described as being "freely adapted" from the original, but despite updating, it hews quite closely in matters of detail, right down to lines of dialogue. Sometimes this jars: When the contempo politician speaks condescendingly to his wife of the existence of "two types of women," a whiff of the 19th century morality Schnitzler was commenting upon comes through.
It's a pity Hare didn't take a freer hand. He is best when he's being expansive -- Hare made two hours of electric theater out of two characters and a single sexual encounter in "Skylight," after all. But packing 10 characters and as many trysts into an hour and a half here, he seems uninspired and constricted. When trying to be economically suggestive, he turns obvious. "Do you think any of us is ever just one person? ... With one person we're one person, and with another we're another," one character says, blandly stating a clear theme, as does another when speaking of the endless, fruitless search for a love that "stays real."
Hare's richest characters share the author's wit, eloquence and intelligence, all of which will be on far better display in both "Via Dolorosa" and "Amy's View" on Broadway later this season. None of the adventurers in "The Blue Room" do. The 10 characters here are flatter creations, generic types clinically observed: a prostitute, an au pair, a politician and his wife, a model. Their unions give off little sexual and almost no emotional charge.
In more accomplished actors' hands, the play's faults might not be insurmountable, but if Kidman ably gets by on sheer star power, Iain Glen doesn't have that. He's an earnest and competent but rather dull actor, although any performer who performs a nude cartwheel on stage deserves some kind of award.
As the prostitute couples with the cab driver, the cab driver with the au pair, the au pair with the student, in transactions that rarely give rise to any powerfully conveyed feeling, monotony quickly sets in, despite the wickedly funny blackouts that give the times required for the actual sex acts (from 0 minutes, to two hours plus). Monotony is part of the point, of course, but it's the soullessness of the encounters, not the people, that should strike us. These characters seem to have no lives beyond those bright-blue walls; they disappear from memory as soon as the actors shed the costumes.