‘Amadeus’ Plays a Dazzling Encore / The revised version’ evenbetter - with a break for Salieri, too

Date - Thursday December 16, 1999

Author Linda Winer. STAFF WRITER


Section heading PART II

Page number B02

word Count 796

Lead paragraph THEATER REVIEW AMADEUS. By Peter Shaffer, directed by Peter Hall.

With David Suchet, Michael Sheen. Sets and costumes by William Dudley, lights by Paul Constable. The Music Box, 45th Street west of Broadway. Seen at Monday’s preview.

TWENTY YEARS AFTER "Amadeus" began its Tony Award-winning visit to Broadway and 16 years after Peter Shaffer’s historical fantasy and musical monster mash swept the Oscars, some things seem like yesterday’s news.

We are long past being shocked or outraged by the English playwright’s depiction of Mozart as a mousie-wousie, baby- talking, flatulence-joking, hyena- giggling moron-genius. Also, we are fortified with two decades of musicological defense against the unfair presentation of 18th-Century court composer Antonio Salieri as a mediocre hack. Even more, we suspect we are happily beyond the heated debates over whether this is a profound work about the underbelly of the creation of profound art-or a middle-brow melodrama with high-art pretensions. Indeed, "Amadeus," which opened at the Music Box last night in the first major revival since Peter Hall’s original, is not likely to turn up in many of those pesky masterpieces-of-the-millennium lists. It is, however, a dazzling piece of theater, an original and extravagantly enjoyable style piece and popcorn costume-drama that holds a commercial stage as few works without dancing scenery can manage these days. The author of "Equus" and "Royal Hunt of the Sun," who has not had a Broadway presence since "Lettice and Lovage" a decade ago, has returned with a smartly revised version that is, in its humanizing of Salieri, even more satisfying than the first. And, considering that Ian McKellan and Tim Curry defined Salieri and Mozart for Broadway, this is no small triumph. This time, Hall is introducing David Suchet and Michael Sheen, two treasures of the London stage, in their New York debuts. Suchet, best known in this country as Hercule Poirot in PBS’ "Mystery," plays Salieri as a superficially urbane but internally coarse hawk of a climber-not a bad fellow but a conflicted soul who thinks goodness is a trade-off with God and ultimately plots the destruction of his genius competition with the gusto of a vampire anticipating an especially juicy artery. If Salieri is Dracula, the prey he calls the "creature" is more of a Chucky.

Sheen, the blazing talent who crawled into the motormouth torment of Jimmy Porter in "Look Back in Anger" last summer in London, is all that performance promised. His Mozart seems genuinely possessed by his gifts, a channeler from what Salieri sees as "God’s music," unequally unable to control his obnoxious outbursts and his musical splendors. Sheen’s Mozart is a bizarre-looking child-man with a rag doll head, a high forehead and an improbable upturned nose that leads his face around as if routing truffles. Sheen’s Mozart climbs on the furniture, gesticulating with the fists of a little boy and composing with the maturity of the immortal. But then there are those eyes, haunted orbs that actually seem trapped inside a life of unbridled appetites and terrors.

The play, of course, is a flashback from what may be the guilt-ridden old Salieri’s last day on earth. In his confession to us, Suchet’s Salieri is a savvy host, gumming his food with a decrepit lisp but strong enough to invite us to share his mediocrities as if they were our own. Hall has put together an elegant production, designed by William Dudley with a dark mirrored back wall, golden chandeliers and costumes both handsome and ridiculous. The rest of the company has been recast since London with meticulous appreciation for the wit and style. David McCallum-yes, one of the men from U.N.C.L.E.-is a charmer as the Emperor Joseph, a bubble-headed, level-headed ruler who knows the entertainment value of "fetes and fireworks, fetes and fireworks."

Cindy Katz mixes vulgar sensuality with a bit of Julie Christie as Constanze, Mozart’s wife in the slippery slope of defeat. Terence Rigby, as Count Orsini-Rosenberg, clearly enjoys getting to announce that most beloved putdown by powerful philistines, that Mozart’s music has "too many notes." Have the dialogues between Salieri’s gossiping "Venticelli," his "wings," always been so clearly a contrapuntal duet, or has Hall encouraged Jake Broder and Charles Janasz to find the musical structure in Shaffer’s words? Shaffer, who has kept tinkering with the script since the beginning, obviously knew what he was doing, especially in the deepening of Salieri. And Hall, whose productions of naturalistic plays have been known to be a bit overly operatic, elevates the melodrama here with high-styled theatrics and soaring musicality. In the introduction to the 1984 film edition, Shaffer swore that was "the last of the metamorphoses. There will be no television series of half-hour dramas in which Salieri plots a different method of murdering Mozart each week, only to be frustrated by the wily little genius in the 29th minute." Or, as the Emperor Joseph likes to say with befuddled finality, "There it is." And we are glad of it.