The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 6, 2006
When a play's central premise is that one character is remembering the huge influence and impact that another character has had on her life, one hopes that the actor playing that second character will create a larger-than-life personality, someone exciting and outsized who will seem worth the remembering. Alas, in The New Group's current revival of Jay Presson Allen's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Cynthia Nixon—as the supposedly unforgettable schoolteacher who is the title character—registers only barely when she's on stage. Several other members of the cast—Caroline Lagerfelt, Lisa Emery, and John Pankow—offer far more vivid portrayals in far less showy roles, rendering this production tepid, listless, and rudderless.
The story concerns a nun, Sister Helena (Lagerfelt), who has just written a best-selling book and is being interviewed by an American journalist. (Helena is a Scot.) In the course of their discussion, she tells him about the teacher who most shaped her when she was at school—an indefatigable, independent-minded woman named Jean Brodie, who, at least when she was in what she termed her "prime," had an inspiring and indelible effect on the "girls" who were her favorite students. "Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life," Miss Brodie declares proudly; and it's true, too, at least for Jenny, Monica, Mary MacGregor, and Sandy, the four teenagers who idolize her as though she were a movie star; for them, Miss Jean Brodie is the endlessly fascinating subject of factual and fanciful conversation and the person whose attention they most crave.
We discover that Sandy is Sister Helena as a girl, and while we don't learn specifically what led her to take the vows, we do observe, as the story plays out, how Sandy and Miss Jean Brodie embarked on a love/hate relationship that turned treacherous for both of them. Along the way, we're privy to Jean's complicated dealings with one teacher who worships her (the music master, Mr. Lowther, played by Pankow) and another who is obsessed with her (the art teacher, Mr. Lloyd, played by Ritchie Coster), as well as her salty confrontations with the headmistress Miss Mackay (Emery). Sandy finds herself involved with Mr. Lloyd as well. And Jean's dalliances with the tantalizing "progressivism" of the nascent fascist rulers Mussolini, Franco, and Hitler—the play is set in the early 1930s—figure into the tale as well, and eventually hasten the perhaps premature quietus of Miss Brodie's "prime."
Jean is a fascinating character, but to make sense to us she needs to be a force of nature, and that's where Nixon lets the production down badly. For her Jean Brodie is relentlessly ordinary—a touch eccentric, perhaps, but never given to big passions or big ideas, the stuff that ought to be driving this woman who craves the extraordinary. With Nixon in the central role, we have to take what the other characters say about her on faith alone, for there's just no evidence that she's as spellbindingly magnetic as everybody seems to think she is.
This has the effect of shifting our focus onto the other characters in Allen's play, none of whom is so vividly drawn, not even Sandy/Sister Helena, who is arguably the drama's protagonist and yet emerges as little more than a cipher in the end. Lagerfelt makes the older version of this woman compelling, though, and Zoe Kazan, as Sandy, delivers a similarly strong and forthright performance (which includes a long, uncomfortable, and unnecessary nude scene in Act II). Emery, meanwhile, as Jean's nemesis Miss Mackay, comes across as smart and forceful, a far more formidable foe to Miss Brodie than I imagine Allen intended. And Pankow wins our sympathy as the kind-hearted but in every way modest music teacher who longs to be more than just the passing fancy that Jean selfishly regards him as.
Scott Elliott's uninspired direction does little to compensate for the lifelessness of Nixon's performance, and the play drags badly as a result. The production's design is adequate, but just that: what's missing almost everywhere here is the sense of inescapable urgency that lets us understand why artists are doing this particular piece at this particular moment. Without that sense of commitment and passion, a by-the-numbers feeling sets in, and for a delicate and imperfect property like this one, the result can be fatal.