Watching Peter Ustinov play a spectral and crabby Beethoven in his latest comedy, "Beethoven's Tenth," which opened last evening at the Nederlander, I found myself imagining Willie Howard in the part. The late, great comedian would have been hilarious, of course, and in about a tenth the time of the "Tenth." For this is a long and, despite touches of humor, tedious play.
We meet George Rose - his is the only enlivening performance, by the way - in the London home he shares with his wife, son and an au pair girl. An esteemed contemporary music critic, he is so fond of Beethoven and steeped in his career that he is preparing a book, based on his familiarity with the nine symphonies, on what a tenth might have amounted to, had the master survived.
Seated at his desk, he recounts the curious events of the past six days, events prompted by the au pair girl's exclamation: "I wish Beethoven were here," which results in his materialization.
The master (Ustinov) is an old, bedraggled grouch with untidy hair and wearing a filthy velvet jacket. Before his arrival, we've been treated to a string of acid remarks and aphorisms about music criticism, music in general, and the trivial symphonies composed by the son. Now the jokes - sight gags, mainly - revolve about Beethoven's deafness until an ear doctor fits the great man out with a hearing aid, after which it is left mainly to the grumpy, irascible dead composer to fill out the evening with his own biting remarks until, having had his fill of modern times, he vanishes.
If my thoughts kept turning longingly to Willie Howard, it was because Ustinov's performance is essentially in a low-comedy vein and remarkably unresourceful, as if, inhibited by his image of the slovenly, elderly musical giant he is representing, he can find little to do but scowl and make rude remarks, some of them amusing, while twiddling his thumbs or brushing the air impatiently. It is a very limited or brushing the air impatiently. It is a very limited and leaden portrayal, on the whole. Now and then, a bit of sun peeps through as a jolly notion or piece of business crosses his mind. But he's really no fun to have around.
Rose is at his best while pontificating in the early scenes before the old man turns up, and in the confrontation immediately following. The others flounder, although Mary Jay, as the perplexed wife discloses an attractive little lyric soprano which she uses to nice effect while Beethoven - he has great difficulty in identifying his own compositions, incidentally - fumbles with the piano accompaniment.
Running out of ideas in the second half, Ustinov drags in a local priest, who has brought the wandering composer safely back after a perilous walk through London traffic, and then two more apparitions - a putative early love of Beethoven's, a young countess, and her jealous husband.
Robert Chetwyn has staged this arch and windy work sluggishly, without any evidence of his being entertained by the piece. Kenneth Mellor's set, with too many open spaces, is composed of lucite furnishings with tubular supports, wall cabinets filled with recordings, and a grand piano. Madeline Ann Graneto's costumes are okay, and Martin Aronstein's lighting is helpful in establishing a variety of moods.
Ustinov is not without wit, but his humor, which relies on paradox a great deal, has a pale Shavian cast too much of the time, and "Beethoven's Tenth" is a conceit that, once planted stage center, refuses to budge.
Peter Ustinov's latest play Beethoven's Tenth, which opened last night at the Nederlander Theater, asks some fascinating questions. Not all are answered, and quite a few of the answers are dusty.
So what? it is interesting, and certainly Ustinov's best play since Photo Finish, and perhaps his best play ever.
Although received mildly in his native England - at home Mr. Ustinov is more adored than admired - this really is a fun play. It also gives Ustinov as an actor - a teddy bear of avuncular genius - an admirable chance to be adorable.
It has one wonderful idea. A wonderful idea all the more wonderful as it contains two dimensions. Beethoven - the real Beethoven, not a ghost, well, not quite a ghost, at least he snores and has a healthy appetite - erupts, somewhat unexpectedly, in the home of a London music critic.
The critic - who even thinks in sculptured prose - is busy incidentally with a musicological study of what Beethoven's Tenth Symphony might have been like had he managed to survive the Ninth.
The critic's wife was once a soprano, but she gave up her career for husband and 22-year-old son, himself an aspirant composer. There is, by the way, an Austrian au pair girl, who grew up to adore Beethoven the man almost as much as the music.
That is the set-up. Neat. Beethoven is evoked, and that lonely, deaf spirit emerges. You hear his knock on the door. Guess how Beethoven would knock on a door? Precisely.
The play then has these two delightful themes. First the deaf Beethoven - dead in poverty, disdain, and doubt - coming back to a world of hi-fi tech and finding that a hearing aid can make him hear, and that his music is top of the eternal pops.
He can shamble in, push a button, and hear the Emperor Concerto - he mistakes it at first - and finds that the fame he sought is his indeed.
It is fascinating, isn't it? The whole concept of immortality. An artist riding back into a world - here actually illuminated by the fairy lights of technology - and seeing made hopes fulfilled, ambition realized. All seemingly, at the touch of a switch.
But that is only part of Ustinov's pattern. For here we have the impact of the living artist on the living critic - and this, less expertly explored - is Ustinov's sub-text of Beethoven's invasion of this particular family, nominally devoted to his shrine, yet light-years away from his spirit.
As a playwright Ustinov has wonderful ideas that are occasionally lost in the translation. But rarely, thank God, quite lost. He has contrived a delicious situation - a corrosively original thought - and he writes dialogue, sometimes portentous, that can hang in the air like iridescent soap bubbles.
For appreciation we have to remember the iridescence rather than the soap - a comparatively small price. Less sure is his structure. The second act actually falls apart - as though Ustinov really had nothing to add to his premise.
He has a little musicological fun - he ends the first act with the lieder Einst wohnton susse Ruh, adressed An den fernen Geliebte ("To the distant Beloved"), and in the second act he speculates on the identity of that famous unsterbliche Geliebte, the celebrated but unknown "immortal beloved" to whom Beethoven wrote three letters.
But such devices are padding trying to bolster the play's sagging upholstery. No real matter - Ustinov is not trying to do for Beethoven what Peter Shaffer was trying to do for Mozart in Amadeus. Ustinov's aim is to divert us, and to write some nice, juicy parts for his actors. He does, and he has.
Juiciest of all is Beethoven incarnated in Mr. Ustinov himself. A ribald but wry caricature, curmudgeonly, lovable, forever pawing the air like some toothless, frustrated old terrier, Ustinov has never been better or more outrageous.
See the play for him alone - but also don't neglect George Rose's urbanely acerbic music critic (listen to the intonation the man places on the word "humble" - superb!), Mary Jay as the long-suffering wife, and Adam Redfield as the 22-year-old son who composes music "a couple of centuries behind his time."
Robert Chetwyn directs with unfussy skill and Kenneth Mellor's setting, while somewhat grand for a mere critic, is most pleasing. But the play here is not the thing - it is Ustinov, who as dressed with ghostly shabbiness by John Fraser, and made-up presumably by himself, is Beethoven to the very cartoon. I loved him.
Serving as both author and star, Peter Ustinov has brought Ludwig van Beethoven back from the grave in ''Beethoven's Tenth,'' his new play at the Nederlander. But why? This illustrious comic actor gets all dressed up as the unkempt genius, only to leave the character stranded in an inert and sentimental domestic comedy that might be mistaken for a padded, Anglicized rendition of ''Father Knows Best.'' Certainly there's enough funny material for a 20-minute sketch in ''Beethoven's Tenth'' - as well as the seeds of a classic Ustinovian performance - but the evening is as unrealized as the nonexistent symphony of its title.
The setting is the contemporary London home of an impossibly vain and authoritarian music critic (George Rose) who has impeded the musical careers of both his wife, a prematurely retired mezzo-soprano, and his 22-year-old son, an aspiring composer. Just when it seems that the family's squabbles are at an unbreakable impasse, the household's Viennese au pair girl magically summons Ludwig to the living room to straighten everything out. Mr. Ustinov enters with a knock that sounds the opening phrase of the Fifth Symphony; pretty soon, he is discoursing in German-flecked English (thanks to language courses in heaven) and hearing some of his music for the first time (thanks to a hearing aid).
With his soiled 19th-century costume, wild thicket of hair and vast dyspeptic face, Mr. Ustinov is a spectacular sight. Forever muttering and cackling, he's not averse to lunging gluttonously at any available wine bottle or female derri ere. And, at first, we delight in watching this portly anachronism bump heedlessly into the indignities of the modern world. Mr. Ustinov is the soul of mischievousness as he confronts an ear doctor dressed in jogging clothes or bounces on a chrome-and-leather chair or copes with the mysteries of a stereo system. Learning that his host is automatically sent free copies of new records, Mr. Ustinov slyly inquires, ''Critics get presents these days as well as bribes?''
But these gags become predictable after a while, and so does the star's potentially riotous impersonation. The thigh-slapping laughing fits, the hand flappings and the wheezy jaw spasms are rhythmically recycled - with only jags of crocodile tears to be added to the repertory as the night wears on. By Act II, the characterization has become a broken record, just as the play on which it sits has slowed to considerably less than 33Y revolutions per minute.
Much time is wasted as Ludwig dispenses sage advice to the contentious and cartoonish family: He reconciles the acerbic critic with his wife and son while encouraging the son to strive for higher things in his music. Midway in Act II, the family reverses the process by playing Ann Landers to the visitor. As the Countess Giulietta Guiccardi makes her own visitation, Ludwig reassesses his broken relationships with various immortal beloveds and with his nephew (and putative son) Karl. Somehow these flashbacks lead to the cathartic epiphany that Beethoven's accursed, isolating deafness may have fueled his ''unswerving pursuit of truth and beauty.''
The few genuinely witty jokes are musicological. Beethoven doesn't always identify his own compositions correctly, and he drops condescending asides about Liszt and Schubert. He informs the critic, who's writing a speculative tome on the subject, that his 10th Symphony would have been longer than the Ninth, with a chorus singing in Ancient Greek. The play's epigrams are of a lesser order. Beethoven describes death as ''merely a siesta of several centuries without a change of clothes'' and grandly decrees that ''stupidity is the one harvest that never fails.'' We also must hear the composer's unsurprising views on such contemporary matters as pollution, urban sprawl and, most of all, vulturous critics who overintellectualize the lives and art of major composers.
In its London production, ''Beethoven's Tenth'' contained a laughably wooden supporting cast: The actors were so obsequious around the star that they might have been recruited from the mangy troupe traveling with the actor-manager Sir in ''The Dresser.'' The New York company is remarkably similar. The only bright exceptions are Mr. Rose, who brings his unbeatable waspishness to the stereotypically sarcastic and overliterary critic, and Adam Redfield, who tries (to no avail) to make us care about the simpering son.
Once Beethoven's 19th-century cohorts materialize in Act II, the production becomes an unintentional spoof of ''Amadeus'' - reaching a peak of inanity when one of the composer's paramours exposes her buttocks. Otherwise, Robert Chetwyn's direction is a throwback to static star vehicles of yesteryear. The actors frequently stand like statues in the dark behind Mr. Ustinov; if they must speak, they usually declaim face forward. At the end, Beethoven tells one and all that ''the great drawback about being able to hear is that sometimes you're tempted to listen.'' But in ''Beethoven's Tenth,'' the temptation is not really all that great.