from GoodTimes (, Feb. 2000

Written By: Peter Shaffer
Directed By: Peter Hall
Starring: David Suchet, Michael Sheen, Cindy Katz, Michael Keenan, J.P. Linton, David McCallum, Terence Rigby
Music Box Theatre

It is ironic that the casting of the twentieth anniversary revival of "Amadeus," Peter Shaffer's great drama about the sulfuric hatred felt by musical mediocrity Antonio Salieri toward the young genius Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, parallels the dynamics of the play itself. On the one hand, Welsh newcomer Michael Sheen as the child prodigy Mozart is thrilling, inspired and heartbreaking; while on the other hand, you have David Suchet's accomplished but ultimately fussy and pedestrian performance as the envious and malicious Salieri. If anything, Suchet (best known as Agatha Christie's fastidious Belgian detective Hercule Poirot on TV) diminishes one of the theater's juiciest roles - that of a man who makes a pledge to serve God on the condition he earn lasting fame, wins prized appointments and success as Vienna's court composer, but in his heart knows he will never touch the genius of Mozart, a boorish, infantile and foul-mouthed young brat with the creative soul of an angel. In Shaffer's play Salieri not only schemes to ruin Mozart's career, life and art, he also rails against what he sees as an unjust God for gifting Mozart with the immortality of genius he so longs for but knows he will never achieve. In turning on God, Salieri corrupts his own soul with the poison of jealousy and hatred. Salieri is a deliciously malevolent role - one that earned awards and kudos for Paul Scofield on the London stage in 1979, Ian McKellen on Broadway in 1980, and F. Murray Abraham in the 1984 Oscar-winning Milos Forman film. Michael Sheen, on the other hand, as the bratty, impetuous and scatological Mozart is a revelation. His hair is a curly mess surrounding his head like a fuzzy halo, his eyes incandescent orbs lit by an inner fire and ringed as if he were wearing eyeliner. The total effect is that of an eager, impetuous bright-eyed and bushy-tailed animal, like a creature out of "The Wind in the Willows," one with an irritating, guffawing giggle. But when Mozart is stripped of his court favor, his wife, and his health, reduced to paranoid destitution and almost hallucinatory fear, Sheen's performance takes on truly tragic dimension. He moves us deeply with his haunted and soulful Mozart, a gentle and confused soul unwittingly destroyed by the man he believes to be his friend and mentor. Cindy Katz gives an equally memorable performance as Mozart's earthy wife, Constanze Weber, a playful pragmatist who is simultaneously nave in the ways of court society and smart like a fox; and "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." David McCallum is a delight as the amiable and surprisingly shrewd Emperor Joseph II of Austria. If in this production the imbalance between Salieri and Mozart is paralleled by the unequally compelling performances, this "Amadeus" is nonetheless exciting, riveting and moving theater, staged by the play's original director Sir Peter Hall with thrilling theatricality, intense drama and bawdy low humor. The stylish and handsome set design and sumptuous costumes by William Dudley, and the effectively atmospheric lighting by Paule Constable all conspire to create the lavish world of 18th century Vienna court society. "Amadeus" reminds us just how satisfying the often-maligned "well-made play" can be. At its most exciting, "Amadeus" is a rip-roaring intellectual thriller about the three "M"s - mediocrity, malice and possibly murder. Murder is hinted at in Salieri's opening confession to the audience. Told in flashback by an aged and tormented Salieri on the eve he plans to slit his own throat and end the guilt he has lived with for decades, Salieri promises to reveal whether the age-old rumors are true that he poisoned Mozart, causing the composer's premature death in 1791 at the age of 35. "Amadeus" explores themes that have obsessed and fascinated Shaffer before: a "normal", ordinary older man envies the passion and mad genius of an anti-social, wild card who does not fit in to society. Whether it is the psychiatrist's envy of the stable boy who acts out of a crazy passion in blinding the horses he cares for in "Equus" or Salieri's jealousy of Mozart's music, a careful, dutiful and responsible man fights his own battle with a random, reckless and anti-social young id whose God-like passion he covets. And, as always in a Shaffer play, the battle is highly compelling and brilliantly plotted. If you haven't seen "Amadeus" in a while, check out this rip-roaring intellectual murder melodrama. It's great fun and great theater. Jane Klain