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Edith Wharton Reigns Again in New York

Two productions bring 19th-century writer's presence and works to stage

IRENE WORTH'S PORTRAIT OF EDITH WHARTON At Joseph Papp Public Theater through Feb. 13.

OLD NEW YORK: FALSE DAWN Based on an Edith Wharton novella. At the Old Merchant's House. Indefinite run.

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ONE of the hottest authors around these days was born in the 19th century. Edith Wharton (1862-1937) has become a celebrity: In most American cities, you can rent a video of last year's ``Ethan Frome'' or see ``The Age of Innocence'' at a movie theater. In New York, within several blocks of each other, are two theatrical entertainments based on Wharton's life and writings.

The distinguished actress Irene Worth (whom one wouldn't normally think of as wanting to ride on the wave of a trend) is currently starring at the Joseph Papp Public Theater in her own one-woman show, ``Irene Worth's Portrait of Edith Wharton.''

This is not a drama as much as it is a dramatic reading taken from Wharton's autobiography and several of her novels, including ``Ethan Frome.'' Standing during the entire show on a stage outfitted merely with a podium and a night stand on which sits a pitcher of water, Worth delivers yet another memorable performance.

Readings, of course, have their limitations, and ``Portrait of Edith Wharton'' is a fairly static affair. But, as performed in this tiny theater, it offers an opportunity to see one of the theater's finest actresses at close range.

She has not been seen on a New York stage for three years (since ``Lost in Yonkers''), and parts deserving of her talent are few and far between. Although she reads much of the material, the performance is still an impressive display of memory and stamina. She slips into various characterizations with delightful ease and even offers suitable sound effects.

The material, however, sometimes verges on the trivial (we learn about Henry James's problem with summer heat) and is not always compelling, although the performance is.

ONE of New York's least-heralded tourist attractions is the Old Merchant's House, a preserved specimen of an 1832 brick row townhouse, located in the East Village. A sterling example of Greek Revival architecture, it is New York's only family home preserved intact from the 19th century (it originally belonged to the family of Seabury Tredwell, a merchant). It has been open to the public as a museum since 1936 and is currently the site for performances of ``Old New York: False Dawn,'' an adaptation of a Wharton novella.

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The production is a presentation of the New York Art Theatre Institute (NYATI), which presents music and theater works in various locales, including theaters, museums, and sites that are historically significant.

The show is performed in the dining room of the house, with the audience sitting in the adjoining parlor. It is written and directed by Donald Sanders, the Artistic Director of the NYATI.

The story concerns the expedition to Europe of a scion of a wealthy New York family, who has been sent by his father to acquire new pieces of importance for their art collection. When the son comes back, not with the requisite Old Masters, but with unorthodox choices (which we see, with hindsight, as brilliant), he is promptly disinherited - the first in a series of family tragedies that span 75 years.

Unfortunately, ``Old New York'' is not so much a dramatic adaptation as it is an abridged reading with some dramatic scenes. The nine performers alternate between enacting their characters and stepping out of the action to narrate, further distancing us from the story.

The interior of the house is beautiful, and it provides an otherworldly atmosphere, but the effect lasts only a few minutes before the play's lethargy proves dominant.

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