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Foote's `The Widow Claire' and Schmidt's `Black Sea Follies'

The Widow Claire Play by Horton Foote. Directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg. Starring Matthew Broderick, Hallie Foote. In ``The Widow Claire,'' Horton Foote has composed a verbal nocturne about muted emotions and unexpressed longings. The new comedy at the downtown Circle in the Square Theatre is a brief night's journey into day for Horace Robedaux (Matthew Broderick), the central subject of Mr. Foote'e nine-play cycle, ``The Orphans' Home.''

The wistful new comedy concerns Horace's gentle courtship of Claire (Hallie Foote), a pretty widow who is six years older than he and uncertain of her future. The relationship ends when Claire decides to marry a senior, more affluent rival and Horace leaves Harrison, Texas, for a business course in Houston.

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While neither character betrays outwardly the pangs their breakup may be causing them, the writing and playing leave no doubt about what Horace and Claire have gained - and lost - as a result of her decision. The progress of the romance is portrayed by Mr. Broderick and the exquisite Ms. Foote with an extraordinary sensitivity to the implications beneath the externals.

Mr. Foote moves the action back and forth between the young widow's home and the nearby boarding house Horace shares with his rough-and-ready, poker-playing men about town. The scenes at the widow Claire's involve her two lively children (agreeably played by John Daman and Sarah-Michelle Gellar) and allow for the brief passage of violence that occurs when Horace believes he has been called to rescue Claire from a bullying suitor.

The night's events - the comings and goings and emotional stirrings - have been handled by director Michael Lindsay-Hogg with a delicate response to the currents and undercurrents of the writing. ``The Widow Claire'' is never more charming than when Horace, with grave precision, leads Claire through a sampling of the ballroom dances that recall the days of Irene and Vernon Castle.

``The Widow Claire'' has been well served by the supporting cast as well as by its designers: Eugene Lee (scenery), Van Broughton Ramsey (costumes), and Natasha Katz (lighting). With ``The Widow Claire'' (1911), at the Circle in the Square, added to ``Lily Dale'' (1909), at the Samuel Beckett Theatre, New Yorkers are being given the pleasant opportunity to acquaint themselves with two more chapters in the unexceptional life of the exceptionally winning Horace Robedaux. Black Sea Follies Play by Paul Schmidt, with music by Dmitri Shostakovich and others. Conceived and directed by Stanley Silverman.

For the second time this year, Off Broadway has presented a dramatic meeting between Dmitri Shostakovich and Joseph Stalin.

The first encounter occurred in David Pownall's ``Master Class,'' in which Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev were bullyragged by Stalin and his cultural goon on the occasion of the notorious 1948 Soviet musicians' union meeting. In ``Black Sea Follies,'' the fascinating new play with music at Playwrights Horizons, writer Paul Schmidt and director Stanley Silverman imagine a later confrontation.

``It is the early 1970s in Moscow,'' advises the Playbill. ``A young ensemble of Soviet musicians has asked Dmitri Shostakovich to coach them in his late chamber music. It is the music of these pieces that reawakens Shostakovich's memories of the Stalin years.'' It is such music, plus excerpts from the opera ``Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk'' and the Fifth Symphony, that give the entertainment its authentic musical underpinning. On the lighter side are such items as ``Tahiti Trot,'' which Shostakovich appropriated and orchestrated from the Youmans-Caesar ``Tea for Two'' and Weill-Gershwin's tongue-twisting ``Tchaikovsky.''

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How director Silverman blends these and other compositional goodies into the over-all mix of ``Black Sea Follies'' must be seen and heard to believe. Between, and sometimes in the course of, the melodic passages, Shostakovich (David Chandler) and Stalin (Alan Scarfe) conduct their unequal exchanges. In this fantasia, the dictator fancies himself a great moviemaker (like such other ``Russians'' as Goldwyn and Lasky), determined to produce a super-epic featuring the Russian people and starring (naturally) himself.

Playwright Schmidt lampoons Stalin to a fare-thee-well, and Mr. Scarfe creates a caricature that mingles vainglorious folly with the fiendishness that could commit murder on whatever scale the tyrant found necessary.

As the straight man in this crude comedy act, Mr. Chandler's Shostakovich preserves what he can of his dignity and integrity as he strives to live out the nightmare that comprises Stalin's dream of cinematic glory. Henry Stram nimbly juggles all sorts of incidental roles as the resident Black Sea factotum.

The show abounds in such wonderful theatrics as Stalin's delight with a Tarzan movie (in the Soviet Union's only private screening room) and Shostakovich's desperate efforts to meet the speed test for orchestrating ``Tahiti Trot.''

Three fine singers meet the varied vocal demands of ``Black Sea Follies'' and five excellent instrumentalists - string quartet and piano - take care of the accompaniments and incidental music. The attractive production (scheduled to run through Jan. 11) was designed by James Noone (scenery), Jim Buff (costumes), and Ken Tabachnik (lighting).

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