If I had to name 10 plays from the '70s I dreaded seeing again, Roberto Athayde's "Miss Margarida's Way" would certainly have been near the top of the list. Even when Estelle Parsons did it 12 years ago, the play was an astonishing exercise in meaninglessness. Time has not improved it.
The work of a Brazilian playwright, "Miss Margarida" is clearly intended as a satire of banana republic despotism. But the character Athayde has created is entirely adolescent. Miss Margarida is really too ineffectual to be taken as a caricature of a dictator and she's just too stupid to believe as a teacher.
Early in the play, for example, Miss Margarida writes a word on the blackboard to make sure the students in the last row can see. It is a vulgarism for a part of the human anatomy. She then draws a sketch of male genitalia, which she tells us is the Cape of Good Hope. This kind of humor would have been considered shabby even in burlesque. To imagine it constitutes political satire is ludicrous.
I suspect this childish nonsense was revived because it invites audience participation. Some of this participation (chastising latecomers) is part of the play. Some is not. Both 12 years ago and this time, people write things on the blackboard during intermission. (One contribution chastised Miss Margarida justifiably for her repetitiousness. Other written comments were predictably profane.)
Someone stole Miss Margarida's globe. Someone dumped her plant into a wastebasket. If one of the goals of the theater is to encourage hooliganism, then Miss Margarida's return is indeed welcome.
In the course of the evening, Miss Margarida does almost nothing that could be construed as teaching. Obsessed with sex, she constantly taunts her "class" (us) that she will not teach us the facts of life. Nor will she strip, though she does a lot of shimmying and shaking. She tells us repeatedly that she loves us and means well for us, clearly a jibe at despotic paternalism, but a joke we quickly tire of.
To a certain extent, the play depends on what the audience brings to it. The night I saw it a young Argentinian, in the postplay discussion that is part of the show, said she liked Parsons' improvised reference to Nelson Mandela and she wished there had been more topicality.
Now there was absolutely no reason for the demented Miss Margarida to mention Mandela. In the context of the meaningless play, the sudden injection of reality only adds to the chaos. But the mention of politically loaded words apparently inflames knee-jerk liberals, who imagine such references educate those around them. Such "education" is as meaningful as the rest of Miss Margarida's pedagogy.
To Parsons' credit, she admitted in the discussion that the play's "relevance" for us is limited. Her awareness in no way diminished the tremendous energy she put into playing Miss Margarida. That she should devote her talents and imagination to so inane a project tells us something not about the state of politics or education but about the plight of our theater.
It is a sad neon-sign of its times that this year Broadway got past Valentine's Day without a single opening - I suppose it must count itself lucky that the drought did not extend to the Ides of March.
Anyway, last night, at long last and at the Helen Hayes Theater, we had our first Broadway entrant for the new decade, and it turned out to be a revival.
Brazilian playwright Roberto Athayde's one-person diatribe, "Miss Margarida's Way," with Estelle Parsons as the eponymous Margarida whose way we take, started its North American life at Joseph Papp's Public Theater in June, 1977. In September of that year it transferred for a decent Broadway run of 98 performances.
It is a tour de force for Parsons, and she was forced de tour it after that throughout 50 states (including, the Playbill helpfully tells us, Alaska and Hawaii, although it is difficult to see how she could have reached 50 without them), Australia, London, Dublin and Turkey.
Now she and the odious Miss Margarida are back. Originally it was always considered that the play was some kind of allegory of fascism, and had a deep-felt political purpose. Very probably something of that sort was in Athayde's mind and conscience, but as political theater it's a washout, its purpose too nebulous, its method too unfocused.
The originality of the evening is to transform the theater into an eight grade classroom, in which we are the pupils and Parsons is the crazy schoolmarm, on the point of ranting hysterics, verbal lunacy and cardiac arrest.
On arrival at her desk, with her tight grin and unctuous authority, she presents at first an impression of spinsterly normality - but this soon breaks down into a torrent of madness, as she scribbles on the blackboard, taunts us with obscenities, and shows us naked power (not quite naked, but she is continually half-promising to disrobe) at its nuttiest.
In all this one might see some kind of satiric notion of South American dictatorship (in her more whining moments Margarida occasionally even evokes Evita Peron), but that scarcely seems worth noting.
What pleasure there is in the evening (and I found little) is in the appreciation of Parsons' knock-down, razzmatazz performance which is like Merman without music, and the interplay between her and the audience.
Many people seem to enjoy transporting themselves back to the eighth grade, making paper airplanes to throw at teacher (sorry, teacher), and generally behaving with the kind of exhibitionist bravado that they probably lacked in grade school.
For those people, the evening might prove a valuable psychological abreaction, but for the rest of us it is more likely to prove an exercise in bewildered masochism that not all will have either the taste or the stomach for.
The so-called play (and there is a script) has really only one joke - and the joke, for my part, outstays its welcome after the first five minutes. After that, one waits for the schoolbell to ring, and wonders if one dare sneak off during break.
As a critic, I couldn't. And for others who would like to succumb but, for various reasons, don't, let me promise that the second half (more philosophical and, presumably, more, you know, political) is a great deal shorter than the first. It needed to be.
And whether you hate it or love it, you will doubtless agree that if you want a theatrical evening of sado-masochism, Estelle Parsons is the most adorable, diverting and technically adept sadist in town. You have nothing to lose but your inhibitions and your time.
In the 12 years since Miss Margarida held her first class in New York City, demanding blind obedience to her tyrannical rule, dictators have fallen and a dissident playwright has become president of his country. After cataclysmic historical events, seeing Estelle Parsons in ''Miss Margarida's Way'' in 1990 is like encountering an obstreperous figure from the past, a black sheep returning for a family gathering. As the actress plays the character - should she now be called Ms. Margarida? - it is the comic element of the performance that is principally asserted. The revival of the Roberto Athayde play opened last night at the Helen Hayes Theater.
''Miss Margarida's Way,'' banned in its first production in Brazil, is, of course, intended as a hortatory political statement, but the polemics and the metaphorical insights are one-dimensional - in contrast to Peter Handke's ''Offending the Audience,'' among other plays.
Addressing the audience as unruly eighth-grade students, Miss Margarida asks if there is a Jesus Christ or a Messiah in the house. Then, clearing that hurdle, she assails religion, education and democracy while assuming the position of omnipotent autocrat. Her remarks draw laughter from a receptive audience, perhaps conditioned to comedy of insult through recent exposure to Eddie Murphy, Roseanne Barr and others. But after about 10 minutes, ''Miss Margarida's Way'' becomes repetitive. It is heading nowhere, and, like real students, theatergoers may begin to look forward to the bell signaling the end of the class.
What keeps one attentive is Ms. Parsons's performance, which has become even sharper in the intervening years. She is so much in command of her material that the personality of Mr. Athayde, who is the director as well as the author, seems to disappear. Ms. Parsons's Miss Margarida is mean and baleful, but with the spirit of a clown. It is almost as if Hitler had transmogrified into ''The Great Dictator'' as the actress mocks herself and the character in performance. In fact, whenever she diverges from the text and improvises her dialogue, she is funnier.
There is one actor (Koji Okamura) in the audience, but the other ''roles'' are played by the theatergoers themselves. This means that the performance varies from night to night. People talk back, demanding a lecture on sex education instead of one on geography, asserting their own will against that of the teacher. During intermission, they scrawl graffiti on the blackboards.
Ms. Parsons is expert at handling interlopers. She is as quick on the comeback as if she herself had been practicing crowd control during late nights at comedy clubs - or early mornings at New York City schools. But even as she merges with her character, she maintains her actor's perspective.
She does not ignore the fact that this is a theater rather than a classroom. At a preview performance, when the teacher demanded to know what happened to her missing chalk, one woman answered that it had been hidden in the front row of the theater. Ms. Parsons said, ''Twelve years ago, nobody would have told me.''
That response could mean that people are more apt to tell tales on their neighbors. More likely it demonstrates that audiences have become especially open to environmental, participatory events. After attending ''Tony 'n' Tina's Wedding'' and trailing ''Tamara'' and friends through Gabriele D'Annunzio's villa, they may wish to stop by Miss Margarida's classroom to be badgered and to return the ridicule. It is entirely possible that theatergoers today are more attuned to Miss Margarida's ways - and means.