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First Nighter: "Fathers and Sons," "Khandan [Family]," "Handbagged" in London

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LONDON--Ivan Turgenev's 1862 novel Fathers and Sons, which Brian Friel adapted for the stage under the same title in 1987 is just revived at the Donmar Warehouse. In other words, a revered Russian work by way of an Irish playwright is being performed by an English cast enhanced in part by the American actor Seth Numrich.

And Turgenev couldn't be in a better collection of hands, certainly not as Lyndsey Turner directs it for all the bruised feelings, flaring tempers, confusions and passions that are on Turgenev's pages--and as played with those emotions in mind by a cast including Anthony Calf as one of the fathers, Karl Johnson as another, Joshua James as one of the sons, Numrich as another and Elaine Cassidy, Caoilfhionn Dunne, Susan Engel, David Fielder, Tim McMullan, Jack McMullen, Siobhan McSweeney, Phoebe Sparrow and Lindy Whiteford dynamic in the other roles.

They're playing in a many-leveled space hovered over by many tan-brown-hued horizontal boards spaced apart and reaching towards the lofty ceiling. It's designed magnificently by Rob Howell and lighted expertly to suggest the changing seasons by James Farncombe.

There's no negative criticism in saying Friel's script has the feeling of a novel transferred to the boards. That's what it is. In it Friel concentrates on the events that fall out when earnest but dull Arkady (James) brings good friend and committed nihilist Evgeny (Numrich) home for the summer months. That's where Arkady's cheerful father Nikolai (Calf) and proudly sophisticated Uncle Pavel (McMullan) reside with Nikolai's mistress Fenichka (Dunne), their newborn son and servants Dunyasha (McSweeney), Piotr (McMullen) and Prokofyich.

Other less entrenched visitors are nearby sisters Anna (Cassidy), who falls for Evgeny but won't acknowledge it immediately, and Katya (Sparrow), who happily agrees to marry Arkady, despite his callow affect.

Though the scenes come across as chapters in the characters' interactions, they're so inherently dramatic that the sprawling play is continually involving. Some of the best spin around Evgeny, who's portrayed especially well by Numrich. One concerns a duel to which he's challenged by Pavel and its conciliatory aftermath. Another takes place at the home of Evgeny's parents Vassily (Johnson) and Arina (Whiteford) as they endure a sad setback. Grief isn't something new on stages, but this depiction is unusually heart-rending.
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In Khandan [Family], Punjabi expatriate, but only for the time being, Jeeto (Sudha Bhuchar) expects her son Pal (Rez Kempton) to carry on with the family business now that her husband, who built it up, has died. Pal has other goals, which include his own business, a nursing home, he's pursuing with Major (Neil D'Souza), who's married to Cookie (Zita Sattar), Pal's sister.

Pal's Anglo wife Liz (Lauren Crace) has her own plans, which include becoming pregnant, a development that interests Pal less than getting his enterprise underway. Everyone's hopes and prospects begin to change around the time that deferential cousin Reema (Preeya Kalidas) arrives from the old country to land a husband and/or begin a career.

Over the course of the two acts, everything that can go wrong does go wrong for the family, including a setback in the Pal-Liz marriage and the loss of Pal and Major's investor. Yet, Jeeta maintains a survivor's spirit, and her indomitable nature is transferred to those around her.

Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti wrote the play under a Birmingham Repertory Theatre commission, and it was first performed there at the STUDIO. Brought to the Royal Court, it's a sturdy work about people at a disadvantage in an alien society while striving to find their own way.

Bhatti does well at acknowledging that within a family where some members have assimilated more willingly and successfully than other, conflicts inevitably arise. Jeeto talks of sacrifices she's made for her children, sacrifices gladly made in the expectation that financial gain will enable her to return to the Punjab and live graciously. Because that's not Pal's goal, Bhatti has her central conflict.

She has much to note of the others, too--the frequent revelations about the compromises all the family members choose or refuse to choose for themselves. She weaves them into a script that director Roxana Silbert and the cast make the most of in a suavely understated manner.
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Only a year ago, Helen Mirren reprised her role as Queen Elizabeth II in Peter Morgan's The Audience, which followed the Monarch as she met, not in strict chronological order, with her 12 prime ministers.

Now not one but two actors--Marion Bailey and Lucy Robinson--are impersonating the Queen during those sessions in Moira Buffini's Handbagged, at the Vaudeville. This time, Elizabeth is convening repeatedly with only one of her PMs: Margaret Thatcher, who's also portrayed by two actors--Stella Gonet and Fenella Woolgar.

The action--all of it frightfully genial--covers the high-flown tete-a-tetes from the first time the ladies with handbags confront each other to the last time. While they discuss with sober diplomacy various events and individual political philosophies (Mrs.Thatcher does attempt to finesse the 1984 coal miners strike), Buffini's intentions are satirical,

She reminds the audience at the beginning that these meetings are not recorded and that they therefore are completely fictional, but not only do that have the ring of authenticity, they have the reverberation of hilarity. Talking about the people surrounding her, the now Baroness Thatcher says, "Men--I can pin them wriggling with my gaze." Dismissing theater as not one of her interests, the Queen says, "We saw Warhorse recently. We liked the horses."

Also at the start and then again at the finish, both women insist that they never clashed over a single issue, which is patently intended to be regarded as untrue. Often, the reason for two of each is so one can offer a remark that the alter ego denies. Since Bailey as Elizabeth wears a grey wig and Robinson a brown wig (Sophia Heron, the wig supervisor), an older and younger version is implied, though this seems inconsistently followed through.

The men in their lives--Prince Philip, Dennis Thatcher, Rupert Murdoch, Michael Heseltine, Ronald Reagan, Nancy Reagan and Neil Kinnock, among others--are played by Neet Mohan and Jeff Rawle. Their rapid comings and going are part of the fast-paced amusement.

Indhu Rubasingham wisely directs Hangbagged as if it were a lengthy comedy sketch, and designer Richard Kent complements that choice by designing an open set at the back of which is an abstract British flag constructed of white slats that lighting designer Oliver Fenwick can turn red and blue at will. Kent's outfits for the two Queens and two Prime Ministers will look familiar to all. Their handbags couldn't be more proper. Incidentally, Dennis Thatcher wears an eye-popping six-button blue blazer, Ronald Reagan a cowboy hat and his Nancy a red suit.

It's all in good clean and extremely keen fun.