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`Anna Christie' Sends Off Sparks

The drama's third Broadway revival is fueled by appealing performances

ANNA CHRISTIE Drama by Eugene O'Neill. Directed by David Leveaux. Set design by John Lee Beatty. Costumes by Martin Pakledinaz. Lighting by Marc B. Weiss. Music and sound design by Douglas J. Cuomo. Fight direction by Steve Rankin. Produced by the Roundabout Theatre Company at the Criterion Center Stage Right, through Feb. 28.

A REVIVAL of Eugene O'Neill's Pulitzer Prize-winning play "Anna Christie" is the 1992-93 Broadway season's first major hit.

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Given the Roundabout Theatre's inspiring production of the O'Neill classic, it's easy to understand why "Anna Christie" also became the great dramatist's first big, popular success when it originally opened in 1921.

Set on the New York waterfront and on a ramshackle coal barge, "Anna Christie" is the story of a prostitute who is cleansed by her own courage to leave her past behind as much as by her new love for the sea and for a rough and decent sailor who loves her.

Natasha Richardson's Anna almost entirely dominates the stage with an electric performance. Ms. Richardson is, by deft turns, fierce and frail, searing and soulful, weary and wispy. I found her more moving in the part than Greta Garbo in the film version (her first "talkie").

Liam Neeson as Mat Burke, a swaggering coal stoker, also makes his role pulse with gripping emotional power.

Yet this production of "Anna Christie," only the play's third Broadway revival in the last 72 years, is not completely satisfactory.

Director David Leveaux allows the play to slip precariously close to farce at times, settling for a laugh when the play itself really demands more sustained emotional heights.

O'Neill himself lamented that the drama's so-called "happy ending" made audiences and critics think the play was less explosive than he intended.

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In the Dec. 18, 1921 edition of The New York Times, the playwright explained his intentions:

"I wanted to have the audience leave with a deep feeling of life flowing on, of the past which is never the past - but always the birth of the future - of a problem solved for the moment but by the very nature of the solution involving new problems.... A kiss in the last act, a word about marriage, and the audiences grow blind and deaf to what follows. No one hears old Chris [Anna's father] when he makes his gloomy, foreboding comment on the new set of circumstances, which to him reveal the old devil sea

- fate - up to her old tricks again."

In fact, almost every time Rip Torn as Chris Christopherson, a coal barge captain, utters the words "ole debbil sea" he got a laugh.

This certainly relieves some of the dramatic tension that has built up between himself and Anna and her bull-headed suitor. But it tends to dilute the play's dramatic punch. It's almost as if he's waiting for a laugh much the same as a stand-up comedian.

Ironically, Anne Meara, who is a comic as well as a serious actress, handles the smaller part of old Chris's blowsy companion with more restraint and realism.

Overall, however, this new production of passion and redemption is a cause for celebration, proving that the American theater is indeed alive and well - even if living in a revival.

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