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IN 'AMY'S VIEW,' OPINION BECOMES A DIFFICULT ART

Somebody once told me that Gene Chandler's "The Duke of Earl" repeats the name "Duke" 132 times in the brief span of the song. I never counted. But I'd venture that prolific British playwright David Hare mentions the word "art" or one of its derivatives more often than that in his 1997 play "Amy's View."

Over the 16 years (1979 to 1995) covered by the play, a running argument about the respective virtues of traditional theater and the media arts weaves its way through espoused opinions on marriage, love, fame, fidelity, betrayal, personal and artistic integrity, and the sometimes elusive ethics of the corporate world, among other things. It's obvious Hare has a lot of strong opinions, and a good portion of them may have been worked into this play.

Way down at the bottom of this monumental heap of opinions is Amy Thomas' relatively pale view of life. Amy, the daughter of the famous West End actress Esme Allen, thinks that one must love, have faith in the worst of times and persevere. Do that, and things will work out.

The gentle and slow twist of Hare's intricate play is that in the end, after everyone has rattled off at the mouth for years and after many sad things have transpired, it is only Amy's view that can even hope to impede the inevitable assaults of life.

The Kavinoky Theatre's production of "Amy's View" is a well-tempered and intelligent interpretation of Hare's difficult play. If it is not particularly rousing, Hare has to take some of the blame. Director Robert Waterhouse has only faithfully followed the gradual rise of the play as it is written. It begins with a few scattered emotions hemmed in by a lot of rather tepid discussions -- mostly on "culture" and where it is, or is not, going. Such low dramatic plateaus put great demands on the specifics of dialogue, and though the cast is very able, it cannot but suffer stagnant moments, especially in the first two acts.

It doesn't help either that the revelations these discussions reveal are pretty threadbare by now. An example from Amy's boyfriend Dominic, an aspiring filmmaker temporarily in journalism: "I ring people up, treat them nice and then write something horrible about them the next day." Even though said in 1979, it's not a revelation that is going to get the blood up in post-Monica America.

The staleness of the observations -- theater is dead, nice old pubs now serve wine and dried yak meat and a blond "brainless Heidi" is the one to steal away the husband -- does not make for a glittering surface. Hare is often funny but has little of the diversionary wit that makes some playwrights a non-stop delight from start to finish. If you get him at all, you have to follow along, accumulating insights as you go and hope you come down somewhere near the same spot where he finally lands. The lack of amusing surface sheen demands that the actors establish the forward propulsion by the precise pace of the dialogue. For most of the first and part of the second acts on opening night last Thursday, the cast of the Kavinoky production hadn't quite found the right tempo and lagged when they should have been getting on with it.

Still, they seem right for the play and for each other. The role of Esme Allen that Dame Judi Dench brought to the London and Broadway stage with such success may seem to demand a dose of that heady theatrical imperiousness common to famed aging actresses. Anne Gayley projects little of that quality, but she makes up for it by emphasizing the sweet vulnerability and ultimately naivete of Esme. She starts off slow, her voice forced into shaky regions as she attempts to convey the dominating stage presence of this famous Esme. As the play gains dramatic force, however, Gayley gains in stature. The last act, playing against Michael Karr's Dominic, is particularly compelling.

Consistent throughout, Karr slides easily from Dominic the arrogant young pup to Dominic philandering movie mogul to Dominic humbled. Kristen Gasser neatly, if at first tentatively, contrasts her young love-smitten Amy with the older betrayed Amy. In Act I her movements are looser, less inhibited. By Act III, after many bad things have happened, she often stands in a kind of permanent tension, her face assuming the blankness of the shell-shocked.

David Holland makes Frank Oddie, Esme's friend, quasi-lover and financial adviser, an appealing character with only distant suggestions that maybe he has some inkling that he is culpable in Esme's financial ruin. (A fascinating plot turn involves Esme's disastrous investment in Lloyd's of London, which she signed on with because of "the style of the place," ignoring the warning phrase in her contract "unlimited risk.")

Evelyn Thomas, the mother of Esme's late husband and the character with the most funny lines, is played in ingratiating deadpan by Elsie Shand Robertson. In the final scene, Christopher C. Young does an able job as Toby Dole, the young actor in awe of Esme's talent.

I guess the set is an attempt to convey the eclectic tastes of a flamboyant actress, but I couldn't quite get past the daisies-on-a-brainstem wallpaper pattern. One note to designer David King: There are many generous Buffalo painters whose work could pass for "British Impressionism," the style in which Esme's late husband is said to have painted. The dreadful things on the walls make him a certified dauber, not even up to Dominic's suggestion that he is "perfect for a thesis -- just the right degree of obscure." Bad art in a play about the value of art is a bad move.

Amy's View

WHAT: A tale of betrayal and misunderstanding, David Hare's 1997 play tells of the trials of a famous London actress and the conflict between her and her daughter. Directed by Robert Waterhouse

WHEN: Through Oct. 14

WHERE: Kavinoky Theatre, 320 Porter Ave.

ADMISSION: $10-$25

INFO: 881-7668

Anne Gayley, above, emphasizes the sweet vulnerability and ultimate naivete of the aging actress.

RATING: 3 STARS

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