She may just be playing the Nurse now rather than the title role she created 35 years ago on Broadway, but Judith Anderson's performance is the one moving thing about the revival of Robinson Jeffers' free adaptation of Euripides' "Medea" that came to the Cort last evening.
Zoe Caldwell, an actress of talent and authority, is the Medea, and she expectedly plays the great role with intelligence and regard for every detail, yet the soul eludes her. The performance is entirely externalized. The expressive voice ranges up and down the scale - purring, keening, coiled in fury, conciliatory, ironic - with a fine show of virtuosity.
And the body, while somewhat less fluently employed, is at least used with versatility in its reliance on despairing crouch, nervous writhing and clawing hands sliding down her thighs in anguished remembrance of the sons she has borne the faithless Jason and that she will kill as a final act of retribution. But this Medea remains oddly lifeless.
Perhaps it's that skillful use of irony that, coupled with the actress' cultivated speech and grotesque makeup, draws too much laughter from the audience. And I find I am no longer particularly enchanted with Jeffers' tinkering with the text and easy use of the vernacular, though admittedly there are times when the poet's hand creates graceful turns of phrase.
Mainly, however, he has robbed the original of a certain dignity, and in merely alluding - as if experiencing a 20th century embarrassment over the supernatural - to Medea's rescue by the sun god's chariot at the finish by having her simply walk off with a passing reference, he robs us of the apotheosis of this vengeful "barbarian" with her magic powers.
Even in repose, Anderson, whose electrifying Medea is still vivid in the memory, commands our attention. In speech, she brings the evening temporarily alive. Pauline Flanagan, the chorus leader - or first of the three Corinthian woman spectators in Jeffers' version - does her bit effectively, and both Mitchell Ryan's Jason and Paul Sparer's Creon are strong figures. Peter Brandon's Aegeus, who happens by to offer the doomed Medea sanctuary in Athens, makes no impression at all.
Robert Whitehead has directed the play a trifle stiffly. And Ben Edwards' new dead-center setting (he also designed the 1947 production), which resembles the two-columned facade of some old-time film tycoon's mausoleum with a few steps leading up to it, looms so high over the action that one is always conscious of its forbidding presence.
Jane Greenwood's costumes and Martin Aronstein's lighting are both in perfect order.
Well the gods smile on this "Medea," but only in condescension.
A tawny daughter of Hecate, insiduously purring revenge and spitting hatred outside some Grecian temple in ancient Corinth. Zoe Caldwell strode into Broadway last night at the Cort Theater. She was playing the title role in the Robinson Jeffers Medea like a cat might play with a rat - carefully, with disdain and with glory.
Who was Robinson Jeffers when he was at home? A largely forgotten American poet, dead in 1962 at the age of 75. It was in 1947 that he adapted the Euripides Medea as a Broadway vehicle for the Australian actress Dame Judith Anderson.
The play was an enormous success, and indeed remains the prime reminder of its author's reputation - although Jeffers once, in The Tower Before Tragedy, a reworking of The Oresteia, also starring Dame Judith, had Clytemnestra perform a striptease to entertain the troops.
In a sense his adaptation of the Medea is almost as radical. Of course Jeffers keeps to the story of this Asian queen who revengers herself on her husband Jason for deserting her for the rich Princess Creusa. Medea slays both Creusa and her father, Creon, King of Corinth, and then kills the two sons she had borne Jason, finally confronting the wrecked man with her blood-stained hands. That's the story, all right.
However, in updating Euripides, and certainly making him infinitely more palatable to modern audiences, Jeffers has held back the purple pomp of tragedy itself, that stark hell where progress has the inevitability of doom, to concentrate instead on tragic irony. As a result, in places this Medea is intentionally extremely funny.
Medea is not simply the vengeful harpy we know from Euripides's play, Martha Graham's ballet, or, for those fortunate enough to see the mighty Maria Callas in it, Cherubini's opera, but a woman of some wit and resource, totally consumed by jealousy.
She needs to see Jason "crushed, boneless, and crawling," yet in her almost sweet, gentle madness she is sufficiently sophisticated to say: "We must not think too much, people go mad if they think too much."
The bitter bile of her envy is never far from the surface, but is overlaid with an imperious and sardonic manner. A wronged, passionate woman, but also a mean-spirited one.
Miss Caldwell, with her dusky, aquiline beauty, is a haunted, haunting figure. She can round off a phrase: "Annihilate...the word is pure music," with a tinny tinkle of laughter, and, when told of her rival's agonies, writhe in what appear to be transports of sexual ecstasy; at times she even twitches disconcertingly.
Yet all this seems part of the grand design of her portrait of heroism flawed. Hell has no fury like this Medea scorned, and the conflicting glints in Miss Caldwell's total mosaic is either indicative of great acting, or something precious close to it.
The role, of course, was in this version very closely associated with Judith Anderson, whom I unfortunately did not see. Now she plays Medea's Nurse with magnificently gnarled dignity that most effectively shatters into broken horror when she is recounting the fiery details of Creusa and Creon's immolation.
Another link with the past is Robert Whitehead, who in 1947 was the play's very young producer, and now is its somewhat more experienced director. It is a competent job - one of Jason's sons trailing his foot along a step fleetingly suggests an imagination beyond competence - and looks appropriately stark against a monumental setting by Ben Edwards that could have been taken from Adolphe Appia or Gordon Craig. Very turn-of-the-century Greek revival.
Most of the rest of the acting is not particularly good. Mitchell Ryan's Jason is as bland as Pauline Flanagan's Chorus Leader, Paul Sparer's Creon sounds throaty, while a deplorable Peter Brandon makes an egregious Aegus.
Despite such frailties, the play works very well indeed. It certainly brings distinction to Broadway, and in Miss Caldwell's mighty and supremely variegated performance you have the inestimable joy of seeing a magnificent actress, the infinite promise of yesterday fulfilled, finally in fll flower. A sight to be watched; a memory to be savored.
Euripides has a strong ally in Zoe Caldwell, who brought her special flame to the otherwise routine revival of ''Medea'' that opened last night at the Cort. Possibly the most modern of Greek dramatists, Euripides demands an intense psychological realism from actors - and that is what Miss Caldwell has bestowed on her marathon role. This actress makes us believe in the warped logic by which Medea murders her two sons to wreak vengeance on Jason, the ambitious husband who has betrayed her for a Greek princess. And because she does, we are, by evening's end, brought right into the thunderclap of Euripides' tragedy.
As befits a barbaric sorceress lost in exile, Miss Caldwell is set off from the rest of the company by her swarthy complexion; her eyes are dark horizontal slashes that summon up an exotic East. There is a seething physicality to her every gesture; mercurial and sinuous, she is indeed, as Robinson Jeffers's adaptation has it, a mixture of ''serpent and wolf.'' Yet she is a woman, too. Though Miss Caldwell has many opportunities to chew up the scenery, she usually resists them by shading her portrayal with carefully considered nuances. This at times almost Hedda-like Medea makes the lineage from Euripides to Ibsen abundantly clear.
One of Miss Caldwell's trump cards is wit. Her Medea gets genuine laughs when she sarcastically extols the virtues of ''civilized'' Greece and her ''kind'' Jason - neither of whom have treated her with anything like civility or kindness. The heroine's sexuality is also turned up full throttle. When Miss Caldwell suddenly kisses Jason (Mitchell Ryan) in the midst of their debate, we see the hot-blooded lust that once made her sacrifice all for him - just as we later see the inverse of that passion in her orgasmic cries of hate and murder. And underneath the frenzy, there is a helplessness as well. Quietly asking how she has been ''pulled down to the hell of vile thoughts,'' Miss Caldwell becomes a blank; she's so adrift from reason that the answer is really lost forever.
From there, it's only a small leap to the unthinkable. In the crucial scene with the sadly childless Aegeus, Miss Caldwell's sly smiles show us the idea of child murder taking root in Medea's crazed mind. When, at last, the crime is at hand, the actress fully dramatizes the struggle between her hunger for revenge and her love of her sons. One moment she is drawing the boys to her breasts in full maternal affection; then she is taking them behind closed doors to spill their blood. There is a relentless sweep to the extreme transition. Like the gods, we can understand, if not pardon, the primal impulse that drives her to the ultimate act of annihilation.
Well paced and often brilliantly calculated as this performance is, it isn't quite perfect. In the early scenes, Miss Caldwell's body language - the tremulous fingers, the shaking thighs, the slithering to the floor - can be stylized to the point of mannerism. Her voice, happily, never follows suit. It is a superb, supple instrument - husky yet feminine and full of longing. When she partakes of her ''bottomless cup'' of hate, she heaves with a primordial ooze that threatens to make the earth open up before us.
If Miss Caldwell's performance often seems more a virtuosic acting exercise than an integral component in a play, that's because the production cuts too much ground out from under her. The director, Robert Whitehead, has fashioned a by-the-book, meat-and-potatoes ''Medea,'' and even Miss Caldwell can't always break through its mustiness.
Mr. Whitehead's association with the play dates to 1947, when he produced the celebrated revival starring Judith Anderson, for whom Jeffers wrote his adaptation. Dame Judith is back again here, in the role of the nurse, and her presence gives this ''Medea'' the valuable resonance of theatrical tradition. While her delivery of the early speeches sounds a bit too patrician and occasionally matter-of-fact, she builds steadily. Her climactic attempts to thwart the heroine's mayhem - a chorus of ''no's'' that sends her off her tree-branch cane and up Medea's steps - are harrowing.
The rest of the acting is bland or bombastic, with the exceptions of Pauline Flanagan's direct, beautifully spoken chorus leader and Giulia Pagano as one of her seconds. While Mr. Ryan's Jason is fine in his final collapse - when he caves into his nihilistic awareness that it no longer matters ''who lives and who dies'' - he's far too plodding a dissembler along the way. Because his overtly callow rationality is no match at all for Miss Caldwell's savage force, the play's central argument is left unengaged.
No one, least of all Mr. Ryan, has been aided by Jane Greenwood's attic Attic costumes. But Ben Edwards's majestic set, reportedly a reworking of the one he did in 1947, has been lighted with an eerie glow of foreboding by Martin Aronstein, and there's music to match by David Amram. Mr. Whitehead's staging is friezelike in its rigidity, and awkward in its deployments of the chorus. True, ''Medea'' is a very hard play to stage, but that doesn't mean one must approach it as if it were a boulder to be pushed up a cliff.
But once Mr. Whitehead does get to the peak, in the last 15 minutes, the payoff is considerable. At that point, Miss Caldwell's volcanic eruption at last sets fire to this ''Medea,'' and even the dead wood around her must burn hellishly in her wake.