Public Affairs

THE PUBLIC EYE
By Peter Shaffer
Off the Cuff

When Peter Shaffer writes a comedy like The Public Eye, he's sometimes precious but rarely pretentious. When he writes serious plays like Amadeus, Equus and The Royal Hunt of the Sun, he's often pretentious. I prefer Shaffer's comedies. I wince less at the precious than at the pretentious.

Shaffer sets up the same dramatic conflict in both the serious and the comic plays. It's the young, fresh, emotional, intuitive and spontaneous vs. the old, tired, over-intellectualizing, conventional and anal-compulsive. In the comedy, the pompous ass is more to be ridiculed than pitied. And he just might be redeemed.

The man is classic comic fodder, an accountant who has reduced himself to the one-dimensional, tight-ass stereotype of his profession. In the current Off the Cuff production staged in the theater at St. Louis University, Tim Snay squeezes every delicious drop out of the character, from impatient snap through dismissive sneer to baffled bewilderment. And he's veddy British, complete with three-piece suit, bowler hat and rolled umbrella.

Life-affirming spontaneity in The Public Eye takes the form of the accountant's wife. She's 20 years younger than he, and she happily gratifies her impulses, wherever they may lead. They have led her, among other places, to a fascination with the intellect of the man who became her husband and with his self-deprecating humor, humor that apparently evaporated between the time they met and the time we meet them, a couple of years later. I suppose because the play was written in the '60s, Off the Cuff presents the wife as a representative of the youth of that era, complete with blue eye shadow, miniskirted dress and white go-go boots. I hope I don't sound unchivalrous when I say that this is no favor to Charlotte Dougherty, who plays her and who is a lovely woman -- but a woman, not a flower child. Still, Dougherty breathes life into the concept, and Shaffer hands her some of his best writing to describe the way her character loves.

To mediate between this mismatched pair, Shaffer introduces another exhibit from the museum of British stereotypes. Cristoforou works as a private detective who possesses the public eye of the play's title. He describes this condition in a convoluted explanation that, like much of what he says, combines cuteness and acuteness. But when he isn't overly arch, Cristoforou speaks in paradoxes of almost Shavian brilliance. He is, after all, Greek, and therefore still in touch with ancient wisdom lost to the modern English, cut off from their roots by urban, industrialized society. Cristoforou can be fun, and Scott Sears plays him with great glee and an edgy whiff of the demonic.

Jim Burwinkel sets The Public Eye in the book-lined, leather-upholstered anteroom of the accountant's office. Edie Avioli directs with crisp clarity. The piece is slight -- barely an hour-and-a-quarter long -- but it's fun, sometimes intelligent fun, which makes it even more fun.

-- Bob Wilcox

JAZZDANCE
By Danny Buraczeski
Edison Theatre's OVATIONS! Series and Dance St. Louis

Both the Edison Theatre's Ovations! Series and Dance St. Louis concluded their 1998-99 seasons last weekend with a presentation of Jazzdance, featuring choreography by Danny Buraczeski to a variety of jazz types. Buraczeski and his nine-member company certainly provided a full evening of dance -- the performance (with a 10-minute late start and two intermissions) lasted two-and-a-half hours. It began with a relatively tedious piece, the 1996 "Points on a Curve," set to music by Ornette Coleman and two Coleman wannabes. The next, Buraczeski's 1997-98 "Scene Unseen," danced to some obscure Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn ballads, had a good deal more substance, as well as a pleasant Fred-and-Ginger aura. The love that dares not speak its name also figured prominently in "Scene Unseen," tempting one to start looking for a story of sorts. Things heated up considerably, however, with the evening's two other big pieces. Buraczeski's 1998 "Ezekiel's Wheel," set to some interesting jazz by Philip Hamilton and the spoken words of James Baldwin, proved that the choreographer could use jazz dance for serious themes. His 1993 "Swing Concerto," set to klezmer music by Brave Old World and heavily klezmer-influenced jazz by Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman, gave Buraczeski and his dancers license to celebrate with fast-moving choreography based on the jitterbug, the lindy and other social dance of the '30s and '40s.

Buraczeski's choreography is firmly rooted in the music he is using: Each dance piece belongs to its particular music, not just to the music's rhythm and beat. Such composition has its good points, especially in dance like "Ezekiel's Wheel," which is collaboration between choreographer and composer. Dancing to recorded music, however, unless the music is arranged and recorded specifically for the dance piece, takes control of length away from the choreographer. "Scene Unseen" seemed to have this problem. The piece began with a spirited, fast-stepping quartet of women, led by a little stick of dynamite named Maria Vigone Slutiak. Unfortunately the spirit, the steps and Buraczeski's invention ran out as the music ran on. "Scene Unseen" had the men in (or almost in) white tie and tails and the women with ostrich plume fans and glittery gowns (except for Dana Holstad, who wore loose trousers and a sort of tailcoat). Buraczeski himself took part in the dance as an older man (which he is, and looks it) with a younger man (Les Johnson) as companion. Johnson's amorous passion, however, was directed toward a man his own age (Brad Garner), as a ballroomy pas ending with a kiss (semiconcealed by Dana Holstad's fan) indicated. I wish this particular portion of the piece had not been set to the insipid tune of a Billy Strayhorn ballad, "A Flower is a Lovesome Thing," whose words should cause any English-speaker to wince.

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