A dozen years ago in London, I was privileged to see a production of "Richard III" starring a young actor whose name meant nothing on our side of the Atlantic. I was so impressed by his performance that I bought a copy of his book, "Year of the King," an invaluable account of how a great actor tackles a great role.
The actor was Antony Sher, who has finally made his New York debut. I dredge up this ancient history so I will not seem an ingrate for being depressed by the play that serves as the vehicle for this debut.
Pam Gems' "Stanley" is about Stanley Spencer, an English painter who was, I suspect, the visual equivalent of the English poet Stevie Smith, an eccentric of childlike naivete.
Gems, best known here for her equally flat 1982 "Piaf," focuses on Spencer's odd marital career. Late in the second act, Stanley declares: "The whole of my life in art has been a slow realization of the mystery of sex."
This, I guess, accounts for his tendency, when sketching women, to have them pose either nude or with their legs extended upward, so he can peer longingly toward the crotch.
Stanley leaves his frumpy but devoted wife and two children for a lesbian, who openly boasts that her association with him will help her own artistic career. They never have sex, which makes him want to sleep again with his ex-wife, who points out that this will now be adultery. (Religion often pops up, which accounts for the often ravishing versions of Bach we hear as background music.)
The play, directed by John Caird, who co-directed "Les Miz," seems to have been created with the three-sided stage of Circle in the Square in mind. This allows Stanley to do a lot of running around and even some nimble climbing of ladders onto the catwalks above the stage.
Since running and climbing are essential to movie acting, I hope this will bring Sher to the attention of the right casting agents. He certainly deserves better than this. Often wearing a clochelike hat that recalls Woody Allen, he makes the exuberant, benighted painter winning if not compelling.
The rest of the cast including three actresses imported from London goes through the superficial play gamely. Anna Chancellor is suitably haughty as the calculating second wife, Selina Cadell admirably cryptic as her lover, and Deborah Findlay manages to convey all the frustration and hysteria the aggrieved first wife must restrain.
Findlay, Sher, Gems and set designer Tim Hatley all won Olivier awards for their work on this play. London theater must be in a sorry state.
It's not a sight ordinarily known to inspire religious raptures. But when the extraordinary Antony Sher, in the title role of Pam Gems's ''Stanley,'' gazes upon a woman's unshaved armpit, the expression on his face suggests, quite unmistakably, that he has been vouchsafed a glimpse of paradise.
The moment comes early in Ms. Gems's high-culture soap opera, based on the life of the painter Stanley Spencer, which opened last night at the Circle in the Square Theater wreathed in critical laurels and drama awards from its London run. Mr. Sher's Stanley is watching a pleasantly plain-looking maid make up his bed, and the activity is rife with chances for epiphanies.
Peering up the woman's long skirt and under her arms, ecstatically inhaling the odor of carbolic soap on her body, Mr. Sher molds his face into a look of delighted awe. It seems to ask a marveling, grateful question: can life really be this good? There's carnality in that look, for sure, but nothing approaching a leer.
The wonder of both Mr. Sher's performance and the director John Caird's staging, ballasted by a wonderful supporting cast, is their ability to capture the distinctly spiritual physicality (or, if you prefer, physical spirituality) of the world of Stanley Spencer, who died at the age of 68 in 1959.
The play itself has definite limitations. The plot, which covers some 20 years, places the romantically naive Stanley in a sexual tug of war between two very different women, both also painters: his first wife and soul mate, Hilda (Deborah Findlay), and his second wife, Patricia (Anna Chancellor), a lesbian who exploits Stanley's reputation (and scant financial assets) while refusing to consummate their marriage.
Ms. Gems's rather bald, thematically repetitious text never gets far beyond or beneath the sensational premises of this central situation. Mr. Sher, Mr. Caird and company, however, go an admirable distance in adding shades of complexity.
Spencer, a defiantly representational artist in an era of modernist abstraction, was painting's pocket-size, nerdier answer to D. H. Lawrence, an awkward, electrically charged man for whom God was unconditionally in the flesh. Though he alienated much of his public with a series of explicitly erotic nudes in the latter part of his career, his apotheosizing portrayals of provincial English life (which to contemporary eyes might suggest a hybrid of Lucian Freud and Diego Rivera) have guaranteed him a fond place in the heart of British posterity.
Spencer was given to setting biblical narratives in the streets and countryside of his native village of Cookham, with his lovers and relatives showing up in assorted godly incarnations. There's a solid, almost Cubist earthiness to his figures, even in scenes of resurrection. Their divinity is very much of this world.
You can acquire a literal sense of Spencer's work in Tim Hatley's handsomely realized set, which turns the theater into a cathedral of careful reproductions of Spencer's paintings and makes excellent use of the always difficult Circle in the Square space.
But the production itself achieves, at moments, something far more remarkable: it creates the illusion that you are seeing things through the eyes of its artist protagonist. Much of this can be attributed to Mr. Sher, who is making his New York debut here. He has always been an actor of uncommon energy and physicality. (His outlandishly grotesque-looking Richard III, for the Royal Shakespeare Company, became a fine, startling study in the seductive powers of evil's ugliness.)
Here, sporting banged-up tweeds and schoolboy bangs and shaped something like a bowling pin, he would not naturally seem to exude charisma. But the sheer concentration of his shaggy, animalistic presence is astonishing, as though he were plugged into a power source the rest of the world had yet to discover.
Even when ranting against the avant-garde to a salon full of worldly painters, this Stanley seems acutely unself-conscious. Indeed, strong emotions, like those raised by memories of the carnage in World War I, often appear to attack him unawares, with oddly physical specificity as if they were stomach pains.
The ungainliness of the body here is offset by some coiled spring within it that propels every move. Mr. Sher's Stanley seldom walks when he can scamper. He registers joy with little jumps; anger, by wrestling and pummeling unseen, airy spirits; sorrow, by doubling inward like an insect on its back that has suddenly sensed its vulnerability.
In the reading, the play is less than transcendent. Ms. Gems, best known in New York as the author of another biographical drama, ''Piaf'' (seen here in 1981), lays out the work's informing pattern with painstaking clarity. Stanley shares a profound intimacy with Hilda, his wife and the mother of his two children. (They sense each other's thoughts, finish each other's sentences.)
But when he meets the physically dazzling, intellectually barren Patricia, he feels he must have her and wonders, ''Why can't I have two wives if that's what I need?'' He gets her, all right, at least in name. Patricia continues to live with her real mate, Dorothy (Selina Cadell), while forcing Stanley out of his own home. The painter becomes a tramplike nomad, eternally torn between the wife who loves him and the one who doesn't.
Pretty gripping stuff, eh? The problem with Ms. Gems's presentation of it is that she seldom gets beyond its surface. The two women in Stanley's life remain exactly what they seem at the beginning; even through stormy fights and a death, the triangle is fixed to the point of being static.
And while the play has a healthy, respectful ambivalence toward its protagonist, it tends to bang repeatedly on the same themes without really developing them, particularly that of the selfishness of great artists. (This reaches ludicrous extremes in the scene where Stanley, visiting the ailing Hilda in a hospital, gesticulates madly during a self-involved speech, thrusting the invalid down whenever she tries to sit up.) And the work's portrayal of Bloomsbury bohemia, here centered on the Lothario painter Augustus John (Ken Kliban), tediously recalls that aspiringly high-brow prurience sometimes found in ''Masterpiece Theater'' productions.
Mr. Caird's direction, on the other hand, provides a witty, often stirring approximation of the artist's point of view. A fragment in which Stanley spies through a window on Patricia and Dorothy, seen in a beguilingly languid tableau framed by Peter Mumford's rich lighting, perfectly matches the painter's description of the ''baroque'' qualities of these women. A scene in which Patricia tries on lingerie before Stanley in a fancy London shop mordantly assumes the pomp and reverence of an ecclesiastical service. (Music by Bach is used throughout.)
There is perhaps some religious-motif overload. (One could do without the amplification of voices that is intermittently used to suggest echoes in a cathedral.) But Mr. Caird makes splendid use of a tired device, having the actors change the scenery, to create a sense of a world brought to life by the characters' perspective.
The acting, moreover, is exquisite. Ms. Findlay, who just received a Laurence Olivier Award (London's equivalent of the Tony) for her performance, along with Mr. Sher and Ms. Gems (for best play), is deeply moving as a woman deprived of her very reason for being. And she and Mr. Sher beautifully render the bone-deep, reflexive familiarity of a longtime couple, both as husband and wife and as artist and model.
Ms. Chancellor brings a beguiling air of spontaneity to the shrewd but shallow Patricia. (She's delightful when, Freud in hand, she happily discovers the perfect word to describe herself: narcissist.) And Ms. Cadell, who finds an understated dignity in a potentially cartoonish role, becomes an essential balancing force in the evening.
''Stanley'' is the first production at Circle in the Square under the directorship of Gregory Mosher, who joined the financially beleaguered institution last year. The wholesale importing of an established London hit may seem like an overly easy managerial decision that sidesteps the company's deepest problems.
On the other hand, Mr. Mosher took over only in January, and ''Stanley'' may turn out to be a shrewd choice. The play, for all its limitations, does traffic in the sort of intellectually garnished gossip that is often catnip for a hefty element of the theatergoing audience. And who's going to argue with the chance to see Mr. Sher in New York, in what will surely go down as a legendary performance?
Toward the play's end, Dorothy gallantly sums up what Spencer's work was all about: ''He paints people trapped, as it were, in their own flesh, pinned down to this earth, and yet they seek to soar and he makes that seem so very possible.'' Mr. Sher undeniably soars. Riding on his back is one of the season's greater pleasures.
American audiences probably won't be as taken with the eccentric appeal of British artist Stanley Spencer --- or with Pam Gems' Olivier Award-winning bio-play "Stanley" --- as Londoners were last year. Off-setting his petulance and childish egomania with artistic brilliance, Spencer, judging from Gems' portrait, was more interesting than likable, as accomplished in his painting career as he was a nasty failure in private. Given Stateside audiences' unfamiliarity with (and lack of inherent interest in) either the public or private Spencer, "Stanley" must win over Broadway audiences without the aid of goodwill Brits have for their beloved artist, who died in 1959. Overlong and, yes, more interesting than likable, "Stanley" (like Stanley) has more than a little difficulty balancing its appealing artistry with a tiresome self-indulgence.
That said, this Royal National Theater production does offer genuine rewards for those with the patience to spend nearly three hours with a character few will find endearing --- and with an actor brave and talented enough to forego audience sympathy.
Antony Sher, reprising his London performance (along with three other principal actors), so completely inhabits this character, with his bowl haircut and a 10-year-old's temper, that Stanley Spencer becomes as vivid as the three-walled mural of the artist's work used as backdrop to the drama.
The play, meticulously staged by original London director John Caird, follows Spencer's life between the years 1920 and 1959. Still suffering the psychic devastation of WW I, Spencer falls in love with the doting Hilda (Deborah Findlay); in short, flowing scenes we're shown the sexual excitement of their early courtship and the more settled nature of their early, baby-filled marriage.
Soon enough, Spencer has fallen for the beautiful Patricia (Anna Chancellor), a mercenary artist manque who's involved in a lesbian relationship yet flirtatiously encourages the attentions of Spencer as a means of career and social advancement.
In Patricia, the self-interested Spencer has met his match in narcissism. "I refuse to be poor --- I like things!," she cries to her lover Dorothy (Selina Cadell), her rationalization for carrying on with the fast-rising Spencer. It's a selfishness equaled by Spencer's own demands that wife Hilda accept his infidelity. "This is what I want," he whines. "This is what I need!"
After he cruelly abandons and divorces Hilda, his second marriage is a mockery, with Patricia continuing her relationship with Dorothy and giving Stanley not so much as a kiss goodnight. She takes the house, the money and everything else Stanley can give, leaving Hilda a broken woman and Stanley a miserable sap.
But Gems is too smart to blame Patricia for all of the emotional turmoil wrought on the Spencers. Stanley's nonchalant barbarity and Hilda's neurotic masochism (this woman is a walking "kick me" sign) drain away virtually any empathy we might feel, at least until a bedridden (and alone) Hilda unleashes her buried pain and anger in a speech unrivaled in intensity by anything else in "Stanley."
But even Hilda's poignant outburst might be too little, too late to generate much emotional rapport with the audience. Easily an hour too long, "Stanley" trudges repeatedly over ground that quickly becomes familiar --- Hilda wants Stanley, Patricia wants money and Stanley wants Hilda and Patricia. The play, like its anti-hero, spends much time stamping its foot and demanding that we care.
That we care as much as we do is owed as much to the trio of lead actors as to the dry, heady play itself. Although his character demonstrates precious little maturity from beginning to end (we last see Spencer speaking to the long-dead Hilda as he paints, but the truth is he seems as much in love with the sound of his own voice as with the memory of the woman whose life he destroyed), Sher gives an impeccable performance, never once cozying up to the audience with phony warmth.
Findlay employs the same restraint, as staunch in her refusal to beg for the audience's sympathy as Hilda is for her husband's.
In Patricia, Chancellor has the most interesting character, and by far the most fun to watch. As blithely destructive as she is pathologically needy, Patricia is one of theater's most compelling monsters in memory, and Chancellor does her proud. Her scenes with Cadell are among the more energetic in the play.
Director Caird navigates the Circle's in-the-round performance space with considerable agility, although the distancing effect of watching the other half of the audience watching the play only adds to the rather chilly intellectual tone of "Stanley."
Tim Hatley's set, dominated by the scaffold used by Stanley to paint his large murals, is attractive and efficient, in keeping with the generally top-notch tech credits that Circle musters. But whether the production attracts (and keeps) the new, youthful audience that the financially beleaguered Circle needs remains uncertain at best. If ever a play was geared toward the theater aficionado, "Stanley" is it.