Seeing a play about an actor can be like going to a restaurant and being offered a cookbook rather than a meal. But there are exceptions, and the key to the success of David Hare's "Amy's View" is that it draws on the best of them.
The main role, Esme, played by the marvelous Judi Dench, combines elements of the central characters from two plays by Chekhov, "The Seagull" and "The Cherry Orchard."
"Amy's View," at one level, is a brilliant updating of these plays. Like them, it focuses on an aging actress in her country house.
The surrounding rural society is being undermined by new forces: Hare replaces the industrial revolution with the spread of the suburban commuter belt.
A new generation is challenging the old assumptions about art. In "The Seagull," the moody young man wants to stage daring modern plays. Here, the moody young man, married to Esme's only daughter, Amy, is a TV and movie director who thinks theater itself is dead.
And the ruin of the estate in "The Cherry Orchard" finds its parallel when Esme loses all she owns in the near-collapse of the Lloyd's insurance market.
But more than these surface similarities, Hare connects with the spirit of Chekhov's great plays. He, too, uses theater as a way to explore the relationship between the roles we play and the people we really are.
And at its best, his writing has some of Chekhov's great virtues. The deep compassion. The ability to write lines whose meaning is subtly altered by what the characters are doing. Above all, the capacity to fuse comedy and tragedy in a single moment.
This last quality demands extraordinary acting, and Dench supplies it. She brings the full range of her astonishing versatility to bear on the role of Esme.
Dench is best known here for playing Queen Victoria in "Mrs. Brown" and Queen Elizabeth in "Shakespeare in Love." And her Esme has all the airs and graces of a queen.But she also has, at the same time, the loud, raw manner of a fishwife. She is a regal street fighter, a majestic brawler.
And this ability to combine contradictions is crucial to the play. It allows "Amy's View" to move seamlessly from big ideas to tiny details, from the ridiculous to the sublime, from the sidesplitting to the heartbreaking.
The other great asset of Richard Eyre's impeccable production is the way Samantha Bond as Amy echoes Dench's tone and mannerisms. There is something immensely poignant about the way Amy looks and sounds most like her mother when they are most at odds.
With precise, affecting performances from Tate Donovan as Esme's ambitious son-in-law, Ronald Pickup as her whisky-soaked neighbor and Anne Pitoniak as her mother-in-law, the play's subtleties are given a solid form.
Not everything is resolved, and Hare kills off one of the central characters rather awkwardly. But for its glowing intelligence, beautiful elegance and teasing humor, "Amy's View" is an irresistible prospect.
For a while "Amy's View," the latest arrival on Broadway from prolific English playwright David Hare, looks like a drawing-room comedy from the days of Somerset Maugham or Noel Coward in London and Philip Barry or S.N. Behrman in New York.
Those plays were often vehicles for stars; 10 minutes into the action, Ina Claire would swoop into the room with a bright remark.
"Amy's View," too, is a vehicle - for the Oscar-winning Judi Dench.
Short, forceful, vivid, Dench is one of those appealing performers who, in maturity, seem always to speak with a wry, honeyed wisdom. Their every pause is pregnant with sarcastic contempt; each wave of cigarette or sip of drink makes a moral point.
Peggy Ashcroft attained this sort of authority; the eponymous Ethel Barrymore was one of its inventors. It's artificial, but artifice is in the theater's blood. Dench is the fairly worthy heir to a plummy tradition.
But Hare is more than a drawing-room writer; he has issues, cultural and political issues he wants to discuss. He is an admirer and adapter of Chekhov (his fine adaptation of "Ivanov" played here last season) and tries to shoehorn big topics into his work in the way that he imagines the Russian writer did.
In a way, "Amy's View" is Chekhov's "The Seagull" reshuffled to discuss English culture.
Dench plays Esme, a flamboyant London theater star who enters her suburban living room about 10 minutes into the play. It's 1979, and she's 49; by Act 4 she'll age to 65.
She's just given a performance and is full of wisecracks about her hated rival, Deirdre. Esme is the widow of an obscure painter whose mother (Anne Pitoniak) still lives with her and the mother of Amy (Samantha Bond), 23, who has brought home her new boyfriend, Dominic (Tate Donovan).
Poor Pitoniak has to be, in succession, dithery, senile and comatose. Bond brings an intense, suffering quality to Amy, but the character is an underwritten function of her mother and her lover. The title refers to her naive belief in the power of love.
If it's about anything, "Amy's View" is about the differences between Esme and Dominic, to whom she takes an instant dislike.
Dominic is one of Hare's villains, a guy who can do nothing right because he stands for things Hare dislikes. Donovan, in the evening's most interesting performance, refuses to play the slimy yuppie note and gives us an attractive, articulate, flawed man.
Young Dominic is editing a tiny film magazine in which he praises directors he thinks might help him in his directorial career; he declares theater irrelevant to his generation and praises TV. Esme shudders. The audience laughs.
All this, which is Hare's idea of Shavian argument, is interwoven with solemn melodrama about Amy's secret (from Dominic) pregnancy.
By 1985, Dominic, the father of two daughters with Amy, is a powerful host of a TV show that mocks high culture. Come down to interview Esme for the show, he gets into another set-to with her, in which he defends pop culture and she plumps for high art.
Hare makes both views boring. By 1993, Dominic has ditched Amy for a Swedish bimbo. "Swedish? How low can you get?" snorts Dench - a fair sample of Hare's wit. Amy has come home for a good cry and a reconciliation, but Hare has changed the play's subject. It is now an attack on insurance firms.
An aged suitor of Esme's who works for Lloyd's has lost all her money, it seems. By 1995, a broke but not broken Esme is acting in an arty little play (Hare does not make all this convincing) and refuses a reconciliation with a penitent Dominic.
Dominic is now directing action flicks in which skulls explode (in England??). Esme huffs, "I'm appalled by the violence." So once more she's a gutsy artist and he's a slime-bucket who probably votes Tory. What else is new in Hareland?
This simplistic, meandering and bad-tempered play, sluggishly directed by Richard Eyre, illustrates two real problems Hare has. His is a world of white hats and black hats with no grays. And, unlike Coward or Barry - not to mention Shaw or Chekhov - he doesn't bother to invent credible plots for his mouthpieces.
Pity the poor soul who has to argue that theater is dead while Judi Dench is standing nearby.
When a character advances this argument in ''Amy's View,'' the new play by David Hare, you tend to wave it away as though it were a gnat, and not just because the speaker is one of those irritating embodiments of societal brutality and selfishness that Mr. Hare is fond of whipping up. After all, there in plain sight is an overwhelming refutation of what is being said: a short, rather square-shaped woman with a puckish face who, you would swear at that moment, is the most ravishing creature you have ever laid eyes on.
In ''Amy's View,'' which opened last night at the Barrymore Theater, Ms. Dench plays an actress with a capital A, the kind who inspires critics to purple prose every time she sets foot on a stage. And there isn't a more glorious instance of typecasting on Broadway this season. London theatergoers have been Ms. Dench's starry-eyed captives for decades, but Americans know her mostly for her recent work in film as the formidable monarchs of ''Mrs. Brown'' (as Victoria) and ''Shakespeare in Love'' (as Elizabeth), for which she just received an Academy Award. That it is cinematic success that has made Ms. Dench a bankable New York stage star, returning here for the first time in 40 years, is the kind of irony that abounds in ''Amy's View,'' a disgruntled, often annoying assessment of the casualties of an impatient, media-driven society.
But who cares what it took to get her here, as long as she has finally arrived? Those who have seen Ms. Dench only in movies will discover qualities that a camera can't capture: a force of willpower, concentration, technique and sheer radiance that brands her presence into your memory. It registers in her most florid, actressy gestures, which are always appropriate here. But it is never stronger, and this is the acid test of any great performer, than when she is absolutely still.
The thousands of people who have already purchased tickets to ''Amy's View,'' which runs through July 18, on the strength of Ms. Dench's new international celebrity will not be disappointed in its star. They may, however, have difficulty swallowing the bitter, not entirely distilled brew of diatribe and piety that is Mr. Hare's play.
''Amy's View,'' which has been directed by Richard Eyre with his usual likably warm affection for actors, follows a formula that its author has exploited more successfully in earlier works like ''The Secret Rapture,'' ''Plenty'' and ''Skylight'': that of a sensitive woman of principle, a latter-day variation on Shaw's St. Joan, set against and usually brought down by a corrupt world that chews up and spits out its idealists. Not that Esme Allen, the shortsighted, dreamy London stage star portrayed by Ms. Dench, is an unqualified saint.
Mr. Hare is too savvy a dramatist to paint his protagonists only in angelic shades of white, although he came perilously close to doing so with his Oscar Wilde in ''The Judas Kiss,'' seen on Broadway last season. But he is usually at his best in bringing complexity to thwarted heroic figures. (Remember the raging fury that was Susan Traherne in ''Plenty''?) Ms. Dench's Esme has arrogance and affectation to burn, not to mention an infuriating urge to dominate.
But, boy, does she have to suffer for those traits, as well as for just being human in a cruel universe and for representing, one suspects, Mr. Hare's vision of the downward moral slide of Britain in the second half of this century. Esme isn't plagued by nasty boils, but in other respects she is close kin to Job. God, or at least Mr. Hare, visits upon her many calamities, divesting her of life's insulating comforts, from love and companionship to her very home. Through the play's four acts, which span 16 years, she is stripped to the bare hub of her faith, her religious belief in her craft as an actress.
That Mr. Hare shares that faith is evident in ''Via Dolorosa,'' his wonderful one-man show at the Booth Theater about his visit to the Middle East, in which he speaks of ''the elaborate conventions of theater,'' which are ''so much the very heart of my life.'' The same spirit, too keen to be dismissed as merely sentimental, pervades ''Amy's View,'' and as embodied by Ms. Dench, it is what gives the play its qualities of transcendence. And they are indeed there.
But be prepared for some heavy sledding along with the cloud surfing provided by Ms. Dench. Esme is the only wholly convincing character in ''Amy's View,'' which is a problem since Mr. Hare has chosen to divide the duties of earthly penance between two female characters: Esme and her much-loved daughter, the Amy of the title, played by Samantha Bond.
It is ''Amy's view'' (and the phrase is repeated at least once too often) that, as another character puts it, ''you have to give love without any conditions at all,'' and that eventually you will reap the rewards. Well not, it seems, in this lifetime, not if you hook up with the sort of fellow Amy does. That's Dominic Tyghe (Tate Donovan), a sexy, self-centered, ambition-riddled young man of the sort that Laurence Harvey used to play.
Dominic, an orphan (for symbolic reasons, natch), represents the new order of things English ushered in by the Thatcher regime, tricked up with the sins of post-modernism. An aspiring filmmaker, he is the voice of those who have no patience for the leisurely exposition and moral underpinnings of theater and the novel. He even argues that criticism (perish the thought) can be more creative than the art it criticizes. He's all media ectoplasm, as opposed to Esme's creative substance, an upstart to her traditionalist grande dame, and needless to say, they loathe each other on sight.
That puts poor Amy at the dead center of the debate, and pure debate, for long stretches, is what the play is. Mr. Hare brings in a parallel love story of sorts, that of Esme and Frank Oddie (Ronald Pickup), Esme's neighbor in a pastoral Berkshire community near Pangbourne. Frank is also an investment counselor who steers Esme into putting her savings to disastrous use in topical ways familiar to anyone who has followed international finance in recent years.
The ephemeral aura of Bob Crowley's set, representing Esme's living room as a ghostly thing about to evaporate, is underscored by Wendall K. Harrington's tone-setting projections between acts, in which verdant landscapes and thatched cottages give way to gray urban scenes. Clearly, what we are watching is the disintegration of a spurious fantasy of England. Hitting the point home is the presence of Evelyn Thomas (the excellent Anne Pitoniak), the elderly mother of Esme's late husband, who grows increasingly decrepit as the evening wears on.
Mr. Hare's script features some witty dialogue about the idea of England itself as theater, a sham show in opposition to the sincerity of Esme's brand of theater. The talk often has a Shavian sparkle and eloquence, but it also often seems to come less from characters than position papers.
This is unfortunately true even for the deep-feeling Amy, although Ms. Bond has a rasp in her voice and a glow in her face that suggests a blood bond to Ms. Dench. Mr. Donovan and especially Mr. Pickup, who is too much the classic stage drunk here, have yet to settle into their roles in ways that would make the women's attraction to them credible.
But then there is Ms. Dench's Esme, and what Mr. Hare has written for her is often first-rate, combining a flowery, purely theatrical charm with a sense of profoundly still waters beneath. With transitions so subtle as to be invisible, Ms. Dench accordingly takes her character through a journey in which she begins as a deliciously comic figure not unlike the posturing stage divas of ''Hay Fever'' and ''The Royal Family'' and winds up as something closer to a Buddhist nun.
When she says to Dominic in the first act, by way of defining her acting style, ''I play lots of layers,'' she accompanies the statement with a silly, self-deprecating flutter of charadeslike movements. Shortly thereafter, she says that the basic skill of her profession is saying one thing while thinking another, and the moment is astonishing, because that is exactly what Ms. Dench is projecting at that moment, seemingly without self-consciousness.
The play's splendid final act, which is worth all the others put together, takes place in a dressing room where Esme is preparing to go on while chatting with an enthusiastically admiring young actor (the appealing Maduka Steady), who asks her the secret of her strength onstage. ''You go down to the core,'' she says, with almost dismissive simplicity. ''There it is.'' There it is, indeed. Most of what Ms. Dench says in this scene is similarly simple, and her presence is correspondingly elemental.
Her eyes here, as Esme looks into a mirror while applying makeup, are so fiercely articulate that you flinch. More than all of Mr. Hare's verbiage, those eyes capture what remains ineradicably vital in this woman when the flashy surface has been peeled away. It is the essence of how stage acting can penetrate in ways no other art can. As long as performers like Ms. Dench are around, the theater need not fear for its life.
An exciting, old-fashioned sense of anticipation fills the air during the opening minutes of David Hare's "Amy's View." Both the audience and the characters onstage are awaiting the arrival of an actress. Amy (Samantha Bond) and her boyfriend Dominic (Tate Donovan) are expecting Amy's mother, Esme Allen; while on the other side of the footlights, the audience anticipate the diminutive and formidable performer for whom the role of Esme was written. If Esme's entrance is by no means without its complications for her daughter, Judi Dench's return to the Broadway stage -- after an incredible 40-year absence -- is quite simply bliss.
Although she's now famed as an all-purpose regent on film (with a fresh Oscar for her latest queen to prove it), Dench is perhaps Britain's most acclaimed theater actress, and within minutes of her arrival onstage, you know why. In a performance with as many sharp, funny edges as quietly heart-rending depths, Dench transforms Hare's play -- a vigorously smart, if occasionally too discursive, story of an actress's conflicted relationship with her daughter -- into a transcendent, moving meditation on the strange and painful journey that is life.
Hare's Esme Allen, like Dench herself, is an actress who has forged a long career on the English stage. But as the play opens in 1979, she is facing an uncertain future, thanks to her advancing age and the culture's declining interest in the art form. Perhaps that's why she takes an instinctive dislike to the handsome, callow Dominic, a film journalist who espouses views that Esme abhors: ambition for its own sake and a general belief that theater is "irrelevant" even on Shakespeare's home turf.
Between exquisitely exhaled puffs of cigarette smoke and cutting questions, Dench makes comically clear Esme's antipathy for Dominic -- her clipped responses and mocking, piercing eyes tell all. With Amy's revelation that she's expecting a child, the situation becomes all the more, er, pregnant with potential conflict. For Esme is a woman who takes imperious, offhand pride in her beliefs, and she's dismayed to see her daughter in thrall to a man she can't respect. When Esme peremptorily reveals Amy's pregnancy to Dominic -- knowing well that he doesn't want kids -- it drives a wedge between mother and daughter that over the course of the play grows tragically wider.
The four scenes that make up "Amy's View" take place over more than 15 years. But the question that reverberates through them all, as indeed it does through much of Hare's prolific output (three Broadway plays this season!), is how to live a moral and happy life. Do principles or people deserve our greatest allegiance, and how do we decide which to choose when our deepest beliefs put us in conflict with those we love?
If Esme at first stands firm for principle, Amy champions the paramount importance of feeling, attempting to forge some common ground between the antithetical attitudes of her mother and Dominic toward almost everything. "I know it's your view that love conquers all," Esme dismissively puts it to Amy. "But it doesn't. At least, that's what I've learned." But later the positions are reversed, when Amy, in a wrenching moment beautifully played by both actresses, rebuffs her mother's attempts to dissolve their differences in an embrace they both desperately desire.
Hare intelligently explores any number of issues in "Amy's View," but his manner of engaging them is sometimes dramatically enervating. He tends to favor the debate, usually heated, and the complexities of his characters get rubbed out when they start taking up neatly delineated positions on opposite sides of an issue, as they often do here.
Esme and Dominic square off over the death of the theater and high vs. low culture; Esme and Amy come to loggerheads over issues of taking responsibility and laying blame when Esme resists suing her friend and business adviser Frank (Ronald Pickup) for the financial ruin he has caused her. At times, the play begins to seem like a series of staged debates on a variety of cultural and political issues: Frank and Esme even go a round or two over the only tenuously germane subject of the suburbanization of England and the cult of nostalgia.
Dench is possessed of such impeccably artless technique that she can make the most carefully crafted arguments seem the natural effusions of an engaged or enraged mind, but some of the other performers cannot. Bond's finely turned performance falters when she's required to orate at length over Esme's financial difficulties, while Donovan, struggling with a mostly acceptable English accent, cannot manage to make a rounded figure of Dominic, who is largely a catchall villain representing various cultural blights. (Hare's scorn for Dominic is almost laughable; he's a celebrity interviewer turned TV cultural critic turned Tarantinoesque filmmaker. What's his next career move, serial killer?)
But even when the play's characters are behaving like linguistic pugilists, Hare's elegant, witty language and the allure of his ideas entertain. And though the speechifying is an unnecessary flaw, the play's episodic form -- which also might be seen as a dramatic liability -- is deeply tied to its essential vision of life as a series of unforeseeable triumphs and reversals dictated by the mercurial fates.
In act two, Esme bridles when Amy urges her to "take control" of her life: "What a meaningless cliche! If you ask me why men always make such fools of themselves, it's because they're in love with the ludicrous notion that there's such a thing as to be in control. ... Who's in control? Finally? ... The answer is no one. If you don't know that, you know nothing."
The melancholy truth of this sentiment is borne out by play's somber ending, when Dominic and Esme meet once again. In this final scene, all the play's superior ingredients -- Hare's most graceful writing, the crisp, unadorned direction of Richard Eyre, a breathtaking visual coup from designer Bob Crowley and Dench's unflinchingly honest, soulful performance -- combine to bring the play to a climax of quiet intensity that sends the audience into the night with a mournful shiver.
The struggles of this fictional actress, brought to unforgettable life by an actress at the top of her own form, take on a universal significance: Esme's life reflects everyone's valiant fight against misfortune, uncertainty and the mistakes of the heart -- even a shipwreck, perhaps, to borrow a resonant, Shakespearean image from the play's mesmerizing last moments. The world has indeed become a stage, and the stage has become the whole world.