Julie Harris is one of the great actresses of the American theater. Had she been English, playwrights would have written works to suit her talents, and every few years producers would have revived a classic for her.
Here, alas, she does TV, she tours, and every few years she arrives on Broadway in a one-woman show based on a historical figure.
The latest such entry is "Lucifer's Child," an ineptly written and directed play about Isak Dinesen, the Danish author of "Out of Africa."
Certainly, Dinesen might make a marvelous theatrical character. She was, by all accounts, an extremely difficult, unpleasant woman, but her experiences were extraordinary. A European living alone in the twilight of colonial Kenya, she observed life around her with an acute, sympathetic eye. To read her memoir of the years on the coffee plantation is to savor a way of life that will never be possible again.
Part of the appeal of Dinesen's life is a nostalgia for a lost world. But more immediate is the sense of a woman of some elegance used to great spaces and a grand life, now confined by both her health and economic circumstances to dwell in discomfort - forced to look backward for any solace, for any sense of life's pleasures.
William Luce's play never gives us a coherent human portrait. At best, his portrayal of Dinesen is of a relentless chatterbox jumping hither and yon among her memories. Needless to say, some of these are very amusing, particularly her description of a night she spent in New York in 1959 with Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe.
Most evocative, of course, are her memories of Africa, particularly those of her remarkable servant Farah. But it is symptomatic of the haphazard way the play is structured - or rather unstructured - that the moving moments are invariably broken by the sudden intrusion of music or sound effects.
The most grotesque such moment comes toward the end, when Harris fairly aches with Dinesen's memories of Farah. The intense mood she establishes is broken when the back wall of her house, a scrim, suddenly reveals a cartoon-like image of Africa.
The implication in all these sudden shifts is that the actor's voice is not sufficient: only theatrical claptrap can hold the audience's attention.
This, of course, is an insult to Harris. So, I'm afraid, is the material. One-person shows are invariably didactic, the characters relating their histories in a stilted way no human being ever does. This one is particularly hodgepodge. "I admit I'm one of God's chosen snobs," she tells us. Dinesen herself wouldn't have presented her life in so shapeless or tacky a way.
Marjorie Bradley Kellogg's set deliberately increases the heightened theatricality of the evening, which does not enhance our feeling of a woman alone. Pat Collins' lighting evokes the shifting moods splendidly, though again a self-consciously theatrical, alienating effect.
Dinesen spends a lot of time talking about clothes, and Noel Taylor has designed her some wonderful things both to wear and to discuss. But this, too, makes us feel we're watching a show, not becoming intimate with a remarkable woman.
Even the pacing of the show seems too hurried, as if Dinesen ever imagined that if she didn't jump around from subject to subject she might be boring.
The pity is that Harris moves and speaks with her customary grace. Few actresses are so appealing simply stepping on the stage.
Why can't someone produce her in a real play?
Julie Harris has created more singular woman in more singular shows than most of us can count. She has over the years become a sort of one-woman National Dramaturgical Portrait Gallery, offering theatrical glimpses into the lives and characters of women as diverse as Emily Dickinson to Mary Todd Lincoln.
And now, in "Lucifer's Child" - opening last night at the Music Box - she offers us, out of Africa, out of Denmark, and almost out of Meryl Streep, that Danish spinner of Gothic tales and African remembrances, the formidable Isak Dinesen.
This portrait of Dinesen has been initially drawn for Harris by the playwright William Luce, who earlier had collaborated with her on "The Belle of Amherst" which won her her fifth Tony Award for her remarkable reincarnation of the poet Dickinson.
Directed by Tony Abatemarco, with its imaginatively tasteful scenery by Marjorie Bradley Kellogg (watch out for the decorative tour de force toward the end of the play, made even more forcible by Pat Collins's lighting) and with a multiplicity of historically slanted costumes by Noel Taylor, the play looks quite wonderful.
It has been most handsomely staged, and we have been assured that Luce's play, closely based on Dinesen's writing, including her letters, is a good deal more accurate than Sydney Pollack's 1985 hit movie based on her most famous book, "Out of Africa."
More accurate it may be, more appealing - despite the distinct advantage of not having a Robert Redford hang-dogging around in the cast - it certainly isn't.
Of course, in a sense, it is patently unfair to compare a movie with aspirations to an epic, with a one-woman, one-set play. Yet - on the other hand - both are dealing with the same subject, the story of Dinesen.
The play does have the benefit of being able to focus not simply on her African experiences and the love affair of her life, with the English explorer and aviator Denys Finch Hatton, but also take in the making of her as an artist, and, just as significantly, dwell on her upper-class but essentially bourgeois Danish background.
Luce and Harris introduce us to their heroine on New Year's Eve, 1958 - about three years before her death at the age of 77 - as she is packing in preparation for her first visit to the United States.
Here she is "one of God's snobs" who could say, with only a little irony, that regarding the syphilis which she contracted from her husband during the first year of her marriage: "It was worth having syphilis to be called Baroness."
But Dinesen - or Karen Blixen, to use her proper name - found more than food for snobbery in her affliction. She liked to call herself "Lucifer's Child," and suggested that she had made a pact with that Dark Angel, so that in return for her soul he "transmuted her sorrow into stories," enabling her to become "a storyteller, a member of an ancient, wild and useless tribe."
The trouble with the play is that while it certainly shows the oddity of Dinesen's character - for example, she gives names to all her clothes as if they were novels - and here and there we get some anecdotes of real interest, such as her meeting with Marilyn Monroe, even her quaintness is trivialized when observed outside of a literary context.
Certainly, she says a few good things - such as her Johnsonian reply to a doctor who unsuccessfully tried to warn her off champagne: "Abstinence is a fine thing when practiced in moderation," but, over the course of the evening, not enough good things.
And in the final accounting we no more encounter the woman who could have written "Babette's Feast," than get to meet the woman who set down so much of her own strange story in "Out of Africa."
Primarily this is the fault of Luce, who captures the Danish essence of Dinesen with so much less felicity than he once caught that of Dickinson's New England soul, but nor is Harris's performance entirely convincing.
As always, she holds the stage as if by divine right - her presence is never less than totally compelling - but her fey and somewhat fadedly genteel manner, not to mention an unconvincing Danish accent that flickers like Baltic sunshine, oddly lacks conviction.
I happened to meet Dinesen in Copenhagen towards the end of her life, and it scarcely matters that Miss Harris hardly reminds me of her. What is more to the point, she, and Luce, do not provide a portrait of a lady entertaining enough to justify even a comparatively brief evening in her company.
Miss Harris would have done better just to have read some of the stories. They, after all, are the living Isak Dinesen, much more than the description of weighty decisions on whether or not it would be a good idea to bring indoor plumbing to the old ancestral home!
The Playbill for "Lucifer's Child," Julie Harris's solo performance on Broadway as the writer Isak Dinesen, says that the play takes place in its heroine's study in Rungstedlund, Denmark. But the curtain is up as the audience files into the Music Box, and the room in view seems to belong to another cultural realm entirely. With a jutting ceiling that resembles a proscenium arch, some sticker-plastered steamer trunks and an array of proudly displayed costume gowns, the setting for "Lucifer's Child" looks not so much like a lionized Danish writer's den as a star actress's dressing room on the road. Though it's hard to picture the author of "Out of Africa" at work here, who would doubt that Miss Harris is completely at home?
And a good thing, too, for her reassuring presence, however little it may have to do with Isak Dinesen, can at times justify an evening as otherwise slight as "Lucifer's Child." Here is a performer who has been on stage for most of any present-day audience's lifetime, and it is pure pleasure for a theater enthusiast to watch the focused energy, twinkling humor and sheer expertise with which she executes her own rarefied art.
Miss Harris's first entrance in "Lucifer's Child," in which she emerges in a Pierrot costume from behind a hanging sheet, is a small masterpiece of star cunning, as is her curtain call, in which a troubadour's modesty is crowned by the regal smile with which she silences the peaking applause to bid one and all goodnight. As a special treat at the press preview I attended, Miss Harris had to cope with a large oil painting that tumbled to the floor in mid-soliloquy. The actress never missed a beat as she ad-libbed to cover the accident, resumed her speech, picked up the fallen prop and then, chattering all the while, waited for exactly the right textual pause that would allow her to replace the canvas without further blemishing the mood of the play.
No, not even Africa can boast a species as endangered as the kind of true-blue theatrical trouper epitomized by Julie Harris, and "Lucifer's Child" is best enjoyed as a genteel display of this magical actress at work. As a drama about the Baroness Karen Blixen (1885-1962), it fails to wring much new excitement, information or understanding from either her pseudonymous memoirs and tales or her troubled private life, with its broken marriage and aborted love affair. There is little if anything here that cannot be found in fuller detail in Judith Thurman's authoritative biography of Dinesen, and there is more overlap in content with the soppy film adaptation of "Out of Africa" than one might assume, Meryl Streep's thick Danish accent always excepted (Miss Harris barely attempts it).
William Luce, the playwright who also collaborated with Miss Harris on her Emily Dickinson show, "The Belle of Amherst," has at least done a professional job of skimming the high points of a fascinating life, and he is more scrupulous about the facts than were the Hollywood creators of "Out of Africa." He sets "Lucifer's Child" in the late 1950's, when the septuagenarian Dinesen was more than two decades out of Kenya and declining into the final stages of the syphilis she contracted from her philandering husband, Baron Bror von Blixen-Finecke, during their first year of marriage. Not unlike Florence Aadland in another one-woman play across 45th Street, "The Big Love," Dinesen is found singing along with old songs, boozing it up, packing her bags -- in this case for her first lecture tour of the United States -- and reminiscing. Her psychological touchstones, unsurprisingly, include the deaths of her mother, her father (by suicide) and her big love, the great white game hunter Denys Finch Hatton, as well as the publication of her books and her fond memories of Farah, Kumante and other servants of her legendary coffee farm.
As written by Mr. Luce and directed by Tony Abatemarco, "Lucifer's Child" is not so slapdash as "The Big Love" or so statically presented as Eileen Atkins's delivery of Virginia Woolf's "Room of One's Own." Mr. Luce knows when to push the pedals for comedy and pathos, and he can be confident that Miss Harris will always keep up with him. Her expert comic timing is given a mild workout by gags about the names Dinesen assigns to her clothes (typically, a pair of gloves is known as Tristan and Isolde). Young actors could learn much from the technique with which Miss Harris falls to the floor in a sudden paroxysm of spinal pain, or turns unexpectedly in mid-exit to remark, almost as an afterthought, "I did see God."
The slick surface of "Lucifer's Child" cannot, however, camouflage the lack of depth. While Dinesen's achievements, sorrows, erotic drive and more vexing traits are given lip service -- and while the play's title provides a theme about art as redemption for inner wounds -- such raw psychological material never coheres into a portrait. The men and relatives in the heroine's life remain ciphers and her profound feelings about them, about her illness and about her other traumatic experiences are elusive. This Dinesen is less a character than a commonplace eccentric with a literary pedigree, and the audience is presumably expected to fill in the blanks from other sources, starting with Dinesen's letters and major works.
What is moving about "Lucifer's Child" is Miss Harris, not its sketchy glimpse of its famous subject. She is an actress in the grand manner, but refreshingly, she is never grand. She does not mind looking her age -- with her silver wig and occasionally nervous hands, she's an incipient Mary Tyrone -- and yet when she tilts her head back and her eyes catch the light, we see that famous, much photographed pose she struck as Joan of Arc in "The Lark" more than a generation ago. Perhaps she reveals some of her Sally Bowles, too, during those interludes when Dinesen is found wielding a champagne flute and a long cigarette holder. What is always visible in any case is a rare exemplar of American theatrical tradition single-handedly holding down the fort. The idea of Julie Harris sweeping from dressing room to dressing room across the country barnstorming in the role of a pioneer like Isak Dinesen can be cherished well after one has forgotten "Lucifer's Child" itself.