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On the surface Ronald Harwood's "The Dresser" is a play about theater. It follows a slightly tarnished Shakespearean company performing in far-flung towns during World War II as Hitler's blitzkrieg rains down on a beleaguered Britain. Premiered in London in 1980, the play is written in a lovely, fluid, image-laden style that might be a trimmed and modernized take on the Bard's own complex language.

The pained irony of Harwood's smart and witty script only comes through as the play develops. It is slowly revealed that this is more than a tale about how even the semi-great can inspire volunteer servitude from awe-struck followers. Finally, it is a story of unrequited love lived within the confines of a master/slave relationship.

Sir (Saul Elkin), as the fading actor-manager of this small touring company is called, is faithfully served by his longtime dresser, Norman (John Buscaglia, in a reprised role). Her Ladyship (Jeanne Cairns), the woman in Sir's life, plays Cordelia to Sir's King Lear. No-nonsense Madge (Lisa Ludwig), company manager, has been in Sir's thrall two decades, outdoing Norman by four years.

Then there's the young aspiring actress Irene, played with delightful vigor by Lisa Vitrano. After an impromptu and private sizing-up by Sir as his new Cordelia, she is labeled by a jealous Norman "the company mattress."

"The Dresser" begins with a performance of Lear in jeopardy because Sir has been hospitalized for a vague illness and obvious irrational behavior. Her Ladyship, played by Cairns with great precision of feeling for her character, has had it, and would like Sir to give it up. "One More Lear in the world won't make a difference," she says. "He thinks it does," counters Norman.

Sir does arrive, though half out of his head and in pain. In one of the funniest sequences in the play, Norman sets out "in his best nanny voice" to bolster the dashed spirits of Sir and get him on stage and -- because Sir keeps stirring in snippets from other plays -- into the right role. By way of coaxing the blathering actor into his makeup, Norman says: "Stop waxing poetic and start waxing practical. Sir, it's time to age . . . we have to sink our cheeks."

Buscaglia and Elkin are phenomenal. Both make the most dazzling or subtle effects seem off-handed products of their craft. What happens between the two is spellbinding; but the art of it is hidden, absorbed into the supple movement of the dialogue.

Director Guy Wagner is sensitive to the delicate workings of these two actors. He lets the pace roll along with the unforced cadence of their lines and keeps the rest pleasantly hopping.

Elkin strikes precisely the right note by making Sir a geared-down Lear who, rather than being grandly mad, is fascinatingly dotty. His self-pitying, his self-aggrandizing, his moments of great lucidity -- all are handled with ease by Elkin. He never overplays a character that invites overplaying.

Elkin's balanced portrayal of Sir allows Norman to remain at the psychological center of the play, as Harwood intended. Norman drifts around the grand man like an insignificant servant -- which indeed he is -- readying the make-up, primping the wig and generally bucking up the actor's sagging spirits. But Norman's purposeful banter obscures the superiority -- shifting and ambivalent though it may be -- he feels toward this mindless old actor whom he nonetheless loves.

Buscaglia is a marvel at releasing Norman's feelings -- through a hurried phrase, a peculiar inflection, some slant of body or head. As the play moves on, Norman becomes drunk, a state that Buscaglia wisely underplays. The thoroughly besotted may never before have received such a beautifully reserved portrayal.

Buscaglia may have this part nailed, but he continues to give it a freshness and a delightful sense of honest revelation. It is a great joy.

The rest of the cast is superb as well. Ludwig's Madge conveys the sense of a person with all her feelings driven back into her spine; there they sit, frozen and rigid. Philip Knoerzer creates a very hateable Mr. Oxenby. And Gerry Maher, Joseph Dicesare and Jesse Lewis Abel are all excellent.

David King's satisfying set, made up of two fragments of a brick wall, takes off on the image of the bombed-out building without making too much of a fuss about it.

The production is sponsored by Shakespeare in Delaware Park and Buffalo Ensemble Theatre.


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