She’s a siren, Miss Jean Brodie. Seductive and destructive, too. She’s “the only sex-bestirred object in this stony pile,” one of the other teachers at her strict Scottish girls’ school says, an impulsively sensual and innately charismatic woman in a conformist 1930s Edinburgh whose Protestant-dominated population is hardly equipped to appreciate her. Only at the Studio Theatre, in Joy Zinoman’s startlingly tone-deaf production, she’s none of those things. She’s Sarah Marshall instead—and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, built around this romanticist messiah and the Judas she unwittingly creates for herself, finds itself with nowhere to go.
Marshall, I should hasten to note, is a fixture on Washington stages, a gifted and technically accomplished actor with an instinct for comedy and a range that encompasses much more: Her compassionate alchemist helped put the heart and the awe in Mary Zimmerman’s gorgeous Pericles a couple of years ago, and her wise, wonderful Feste was a major part of what made the Folger Theatre’s 2003 Twelfth Night such a luminous thing. So I’d hesitate to suggest that Marshall couldn’t conjure up the odd magnetism, the off-kilter glamour that’s so crucial to making Muriel Spark’s fabulously deluded heroine more than a messy bundle of tics and affectations. It has little to do with physical beauty: The list of stars who’ve succeeded in the part includes Zoe Caldwell, Maggie Smith, and most recently Fiona Shaw, none of them conventional lookers. It’s an air—conviction, maybe, or that rare madness that makes prophets—and it’s probably irreducible to adjective-slinging. I only report that Marshall hasn’t managed to conjure it in the Studio Theatre’s production—which as a consequence staggers eccentrically along, asking everyone it meets why this dotty creature, this half-baked aesthete masquerading as a Renaissance woman, is allowed to have any contact whatsoever with the impressionable young.
Jay Presson Allen’s play, slenderized from Spark’s already slight novel, puts us in the classroom with the nonconformist Brodie and a gaggle of her special girls—the “crème de la crème” she keeps talking about, the students she’s picked out of the crowd for one singular quality or another and gathered about her like so many acolytes. It’s history period, but far be it from Brodie to stick to anything as tiresome as the syllabus. Instead she’s regaling her girls with slides from her Italian summer and lump-in-the-throat stories of her war-lost lover, lying with the poppies in Flanders Field. It gets her into trouble with the traditionalist headmistress (a deliciously dour Catherine Flye), but it’s all part of an effort to underscore that beauty and passion and art are more worthy pursuits than the mundane concerns of a middlebrow society, a strategy to ensure that these girls, at least, will get a chance most won’t to have their minds loosed and their horizons broadened. “Give me a girl at an impressionable age,” Brodie triumphantly says, “and she is mine for life.”
At first that seems like a fine thing in a world that might otherwise make identical nonentities of her charges. But as the years go by, as the girls grow up and grow into their adult personalities, Brodie’s passions turn out to be less the products of a freethinker’s intellect than the intemperate fancies of a merely unfocused one; the damage she unwittingly does to the girls who idolize her comes crashing home in a second act that’s engineered to rattle an audience to precisely the degree it allows itself to fall in love with Brodie in the first.
Which means that a miscast Brodie, as anyone who’s seen the 1969 film with the briskly enthralling Smith will know, makes the whole exercise fairly pointless: If we don’t buy into the cultlike fascination Brodie inspires in her students, if we don’t find her every bit as curiously fabulous as those malleable preadolescents do, the play’s layers come apart like so much stale phyllo. For a sense of how it ought to hang together, turn to the six pages of program notes in the Studio playbill, with their commentary on the play’s historical milieu, on the real-life teacher who inspired Jean Brodie, and on how the character’s firm belief in her and her girls’ superiority connects with the Calvinist doctrine of a predestined “elect”—and also with her unfortunate susceptibility to the blandishments of fascism, which likewise assumes a common herd and a few glittering exceptions to it. In fact, turn to those notes whenever and as often as you like: They are, alas, more cogent and engrossing than what’s going on onstage.
That’s because what’s going on onstage is a mess—a sequence of comings and goings, interrupted all too often for a bit of singing, that in a considerable feat manages to be both chafingly busy and insupportably turgid. (Accents come and go, too, every bit as erratically.) The supporting performances are all competent, though Marshall’s glamour deficit makes a hash of the plot lines involving her affairs with a puppyish chorus master (Richard Stirling) and a married artist (David Adkins) whose portraits all turn out to look like Brodie. And though Sarah Grace Wilson is superb as the first student to understand the perils of her teacher’s personality cult, the confrontation scene that might be a heartbreaker comes off as merely grim.
Daniel Conway’s set, a two-level business with stairs and arched passageways and translucent screens upon which the occasional projection makes itself known, looks every bit as infatuated with possibility and with the flamboyant gesture as the charismatic oddity it’s meant to frame—and ultimately it’s every bit as disappointing, not least because it seems to take people an eternity to negotiate its corners and its switchbacks and its ascents. And dear God, those projections—I get it, I get it, even without the Dali that hadn’t been painted in the 1930s, I get it!
Alex Jaeger’s costumes, at least, do what they ought: They’re emphatically chic for Brodie, emphatically ordinary for everyone else. The claret buttons on Marshall’s fashionable walking coat, in just one nice touch, make a wistful romantic visual echo of the poppies scattered bloodily across an otherwise black-and-white photo of war graves.
It’s not nearly enough, though. Well-dressed Miss Jean Brodie may be—she may even, as she keeps insisting, still be in her prime, though I have my doubts—but Studio’s hapless production hardly shows the poor creature at her best.CP