December 16, 1999

`Amadeus': Mozart Blazes Before a Changed Salieri


    Certain actors seem haloed in heat, even in cold climates. In the less than fiery new revival of Peter Shaffer's "Amadeus," which opened last night at the Music Box Theater, a 30-year-old Welshman named Michael Sheen projects the kind of air-warping waves given off by blacktop in the August sun.

    It's not just that in this popular drama's title role, that of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Mr. Sheen is often in a state of manic motion; it's that his body temperature would seem to be several degrees higher than that of anyone else on stage. Watching him trace Mr. Shaffer's conception of a child prodigy grown up into prodigious childishness, you start to appreciate the derivation of the term star. This actor is so luminous it's scary.

    New York theatergoers whose memories extend to 1980 might recall a similarly solar performance by another British actor, then little known in the United States, in the very same play. His name was Ian McKellen, and his role was not that played by Mr. Sheen in the current production, which has been directed (as was the original version) by the stage-savvy Peter Hall.

    Mr. McKellen portrayed Antonio Salieri, Mozart's politically astute contemporary, rival and, the play has it, nemesis. That part has now been taken on by David Suchet, an accomplished actor who simply doesn't have it in him to blaze, at least not on this occasion.

    For better or worse, this leads to a seismic shift in the work's center. And though one regrets to say it, it's mostly for the worse. In spinning a tale from historical gossip previously given dramatic life in Aleksandr Pushkin's playlet and Rimsky-Korsakov's opera, both titled "Mozart and Salieri," Mr. Shaffer had the inspired idea of measuring genius through its impact on an artist who would never possess it.

    Originally produced in London in 1979 with Paul Scofield as Salieri, the drama was translated into an Oscar-winning 1984 movie directed by Milos Forman and starring F. Murray Abraham. On the stage and on film, "Amadeus" belonged squarely to Salieri, a man cancerous with envy and at war with the God who has denied him the gifts he so covets.

    Though it is said that Roman Polanski's Mozart ran away with the play in European productions some years ago, this is the first "Amadeus" I've seen that lets its title character take over altogether. It could be argued that this is yet another instance of divine injustice. Poor old Salieri; he doesn't even have a play to call his own anymore.

    This is partly a consequence of Mr. Shaffer's having rethought Salieri's character over the last two decades and decided that the fellow had too much of the melodrama villain about him. In this rewritten "Amadeus" Salieri has a louder conscience, and it leads him to a new scene of openly expressed contrition. Unfortunately, this takes place in the presence of Mr. Sheen's Mozart, who by now is looking into the chasm of his imminent death with such raptness that it's hard to pay attention to what Mr. Suchet is saying.

    Known to television audiences as Agatha Christie's self-admiring Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, Mr. Suchet keeps swagger to a minimum here, substituting arch glances to the audience that signal the play's copious ironies. His Salieri is basically the awed onlooker, a witness to the ineffable brilliance of a younger man lacking the Machiavellian skills for survival in courtly Vienna.

    He often comes across as something like a docent in a museum, a smoother variation on the tourist-deceiving heroine of Mr. Shaffer's "Lettice and Lovage," though with far less sense of drama. Salieri becomes a lens through which the audience perceives Mozart, like the proverbial cats looking at a king.

    This might work better if Salieri didn't have pages-long monologues in which he charts the rise and fall of his and Mozart's fortunes. All the same, the shivery thrill of "Amadeus" traditionally came from letting a man who fashions himself as the patron saint of mediocrities finally assume star status. Salieri at last has his chance to strut and fret his hour (well, closer to three hours) upon the stage, and he is determined to make the most of it, starting with his introductory invocation to summon the audience as his confessors.

    Mr. Hall's staging plays with the crowd-baiting audacity of this conceit, right down to having the audience reflected in the mirrors of William Dudley's set of ghostly scrims and reflective surfaces, underscored by Paule Constable's crepuscular lighting. Yet there is also an aura of anticlimax throughout. It's evident even in the use of recorded Mozart music (overseen by Matt McKenzie), which has an intrusive abruptness when it should bleed seamlessly into the fabric of the production.

    Correspondingly, Mr. Suchet repeatedly passes on opportunities for coups de théâtre. The transformation of the aged Salieri of the play's beginning into a robust 31-year-old is underplayed into near nonexistence. And the scene where Salieri, examining scores by Mozart, swoons in reaction to their compositional brilliance -- rendered as a Miltonian fall by Mr. McKellen -- is here a plebeian thud.

    There is nothing remotely plebeian about Mr. Sheen's Mozart. Mr. Shaffer has drawn noisy criticism for representing Mozart as a scatological, foulmouthed, father-obsessed creep with a hyena cackle. Yet Mr. Sheen elicits a real poetry from the role, an undulating pattern of shock-provoking goonishness and abject apology that lends a connecting air of compulsion to Mozart's spontaneous art and bad behavior. (Think John McEnroe acting out on a tennis court.)

    It is not, however, a good sign when you find yourself marking the minutes when an actor isn't onstage, and there are long stretches unblessed by Mr. Sheen's presence. David McCallum (fondly remembered as the coolest sidekick of 1960's television in "The Man from U.N.C.L.E.") offers a splendidly droll portrait of royal fatuity as the Emperor Joseph II, and Cindy Katz brings a refreshing earthiness and pragmatism to Constanze, Mozart's wife, a part usually played as a fluffy, empty-headed kitten.

    But the representation of double-dealing politics in imperial Austria starts to seem labored and repetitive without a volcanic Salieri to raise the emotional stakes. Scale down Salieri's villainy, and you sacrifice the guilty satisfactions of watching just how evil banality can be.

    It is hard, however, to imagine anyone not shrinking into the shadows before the white-hot Mozart of Mr. Sheen, who recently scored a critical triumph in London in John Osborne's "Look Back in Anger." The perspiration that bedews him here as his character slides toward his early grave has the look of glitter, just as in his earlier scenes the glittering embroidery on his jacket (also designed by Mr. Dudley) seems as organic as sweat. Attention producers: if you're looking for someone to give physical credence to the romantic idea of the flame that consumes itself, Mr. Sheen is definitely your man.