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London theater: worth the trip

Britain's version of Broadway pumps out provocative new plays and

London's influence on American theater is no longer confined to the classics. In the past three years, Broadway's Tony Awards nominations have been dominated by London imports such as "Beauty Queen of Leenane," "Art," "A Doll's House," and "The Chairs" sweeping most of the drama categories. So this year's London offerings may offer some clues to what's ahead in the United States.

New plays, old musicals, and the venerable Mr. Shakespeare all contribute to a fine 1999 season. A cerebral drama and a philosophical musical top the list. "Candide" has had a history as complex as the tale its original Voltaire novel tells. Its troubled original Broadway run was in 1956, and it's seen no less than seven reworkings by composer Leonard Bernstein and various writers, including Hugh Wheeler, Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker, and Stephen Sondheim. Finally, the Royal National Theatre has stripped away the extra layers of labored text, extravagant scenery, and plot-halting numbers to reveal a glistening jewel. In a new rewrite by director John Caird and lyricist Richard Wilbur, Candide opens with one large black trunk onstage. Quickly, characters extract a smaller one, then a smaller one, Chinese box-style, until seven are arrayed within the grand circle that outlines the perimeter of the Olivier Theatre.

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Supplemented only by colored fabric swaths, those seven trunks become everything from tables, beds, and altars to horses, canoes, and drums. This clean design sets the tone for a bold lyrical, involving three-plus hours that never lags, accented by the soaring voice of Alex Kelly as Cungonde; Daniel Evans as Candide; and a jaunty, steamroller turn by Simon Russell Beale as Dr. Pangloss.

Tracing the young hero's journey to prove his mentor's philosophy that "everything happens for the best," and find his lost love, Bernstein's solos, duets, trios, choral numbers, and full-company ensembles bounce from Bavaria, Paris, and Vienna to Paraguay, Uruguay, and Suriname. Each stop is peppered with spicy songs, clever dialogue, and an eagerness to wrap satire in an entertaining package.

London's other unqualified hit, the drama Copenhagen, by Michael Frayn, also employs a stripped-down production technique - three chairs, three people - to tell a complex story.

Shifting from the 1920s, until the 1950s, this provocative piece charts the student-teacher relationship between pioneering theoretical physicist Niels Bohr and his brilliant pupil Werner Heisenberg.

When Bohr found his country, Denmark, occupied by Heisenberg's Germany during World War II, each man had to weigh moral, political, and personal choices: Should they offer, withhold, or limit the sharing of their knowledge with the Germans, which could lead to the development of the atom bomb?

Michael Blakemore's ever-fluid direction turns dialogue into action, allowing ideas to stimulate, challenge, and confront our deepest views on guilt and responsibility. The two-page history in the play's program is all you need to know to find yourself caught up in this story of strained loyalties, faulty memories, and the role of conscience in the struggle between the quest for scientific discoveries and their consequences.

Also set during World War II and the decade preceding it, C.P. Taylor's Good, at the Donmar Warehouse theater, approaches some of the same subjects with a decidedly more theatrical approach.

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The rise of the Nazis at first seems of little interest to Holder, a professor trapped in an unhappy marriage, tending an infirm mother, and plagued by hallucinations that include some sort of musical accompaniment.

The arrival of a romantically inclined student, and the equally disturbing calls to conscience from a Jewish colleague, begin his slow, tortured progression from a settled, passive intellectual to a man living with a mistress and accepting a post as an officer in the German SS. Taylor's mission, to reveal the subjectivity of what one may define as "good" or "evil," culminates in a chilling final scene.

Another Donmar production, currently running at the West End's Comedy Theatre, tries to capture the languid atmosphere of Tennessee Williams's Suddenly, Last Summer, with mixed results.

Although designer Tim Hatley has created a suitably menacing New Orleans town house garden for Sebastian Venable onstage, the languid behavior that environment should engender never fully emerges. Only Rachel Weisz (currently on move screens in "The Mummy"), delivering Catherine's final, hair-raising monologue, manages to elicit the true terror in this nightmare tale.

The darker elements of another familiar American classic receive more attention than usual in the revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! Transferred from its initial run at the National Theatre to the Lyceum Theatre, this production's brightest star is not on stage. Choreographer Susan Stroman has successfully reimagined the dances of the legendary Agnes de Mille. Stroman, forging a dream ballet, ensemble numbers, and specialty turns that inject more period references into the dance while retaining the exuberant adolescence of the story. Outstanding among a collection of good performances is Hugh Jackman as Curly, with the right mix of cowboy bravura and love-struck, cowlick charm. The endless parade of familiar, hummable songs never subsides.

Meanwhile, director Anthony Page has succeeded less well in Alexander Ostrovsky's The Forest, in a new version by Alan Ayckbourn. Strong performances, especially from Frances de la Tour, fail to lift this labored, embroidered Russian saga of a lost nephew returning to claim his inheritance, a pair of star-crossed romances, the decline of the aristocracy, and the rise of a servant class pushing themselves into the world of commerce.

Humor is the biggest surprise in the revival of Peter Shaffer's Amadeus. The sparkling production, directed by Peter Hall at the Old Vic, mines every possible comic moment, allowing the dark heart of the fictionalized story, Antonio Salieri's relentless sabotaging of Mozart's life and career during the late 18th and early 19th centuries in Vienna, the perspective it needs to register. Scheduled to travel to Los Angeles later this year, and then to Broadway next spring, "Amadeus" provides moments of sheer theatrical pleasure.

Those pleasures are much harder to find in Hanif Kureishi's new play Sleep With Me. This embarrassingly self-indulgent work seeks to engender sympathy for a collection of high-end Londoners ensconced at a country house for the weekend. Flippant sitcom exchanges and melodrama plague a text that ticks off "issues" such as infidelity, drug use, middle age, and the pervasive influence of pop-culture media. But once consumed, they fail to satisfy the hunger for real substance.

Shakespeare, that enduring refuge for theatergoers, does satisfy, whether one's taste is for the serious or the silly. At the Young Vic, Hamlet demonstrates how a clear vision, combined with focused performances, can keep a classic tragedy from becoming an oppressive polemic and turn it into riveting theater.

Directed by Laurence Boswell, and destined for a world tour beginning in Japan, "Hamlet" bristles with energy, spinning out plots and subplots, catching every nuance, and featuring a dazzlingly wry, self-aware title performance by Paul Rhys.

This exciting company, stocked with talented young actors, has established a reputation as one of London's brightest theatrical destinations, housed down the block from the Old Vic.

For those less willing to take on the Bard at his most earnest, the Reduced Shakespeare Company provides its Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) at its cozy Criterion Theatre at Piccadilly Circus.

This is Shakespeare as interpreted by the Marx Brothers, written in the style of the classic sketches of Jackie Gleason and Carol Burnett. Using just three actors, every comedy, tragedy, history, and sonnet has been condensed, excerpted, and then served up, aided by flea-market costumes and a handful of pitiful props, including one sad-looking wig. (The ghost of "Hamlet" is portrayed by a sock puppet.) No more than a high-school-level knowledge of Shakespeare is needed for a thoroughly enjoyable theater experience.

How to buy tickets to London theaters

London theater tickets are easily accessible and affordable, especially matinees. Try the theater box offices; they often save some tickets to be sold the day of the performance.

Ticket agencies in the US: Edwards and Edwards (800-223-6108); Theater Direct International (800-334-8457); First Call (800-669-8687).

The Society of London Theaters offers half-price tickets on the day of performance. In London call 836-0971.

For information on the Web, including reviews, directions, and phone numbers for theaters, try the London Theatre Guide - (

First Call (in London, 497-9977) can even get tickets for shows that are technically sold out for a "booking charge" of up to 25 percent.

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