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First Nighter: Martha Clarke's "Threepenny Opera" Short-Changes

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Not to put too fine a point on it, director-choreographer Martha Clarke's version of the Bertolt Brecht-Kurt Weill Threepenny Opera, at the Atlantic's Linda Gross Theater, seeps across the footlights as if it were The Onepenny Opera.

There's something so plodding about the spoken and sung tempos that even though there's some nudity--bare-breasted women and bare-chested men--writhing in corners at various times while the focal characters act out Brecht's take on John Gay's 1728 Beggar's Opera--the result has the mired quality of trying to run in dreams. No matter how hard the dreamer strives, little acceleration is achieved.

The mystery is how this came about when so many worthy people are associated with the enterprise, beginning with Clarke herself. Her missing the mark has to do with the vision she has for this production. On Robert Israel's blank gray box with an upstage opening the other side of which which a Weill-ish honky-tonk seven-man band plays, Clarke looks to be going after tableaux based on George Grosz, Ernst Kirchner and Max Beckmann works. She frequently succeeds, but the whole point of tableau is that it's still.

And look at the cast she's chosen. To begin with, the much-awarded performance artist John Kelly as a street singer starts the proceedings slinking around the stage while sourly intoning "Mack the Knife." Not a bad kick-off. Immediately thereafter, F. Murray Abraham as Mr. Peachum, the nefarious lord of the beggars, raises his voice for "Morning Anthem" and almost instantly is joined by Mary Beth Peil for "Instead of Song." Whereupon their chanting raises a question about Threepenny Opera vocal demands.

Anyone who knows the Brecht-Weill catalog understands that the definitive interpreter is Lotte Lenya. No brief can be made about the pure quality of her guttural, slightly high-pitched sound. Was hers good singing by definition? Probably not, and yet, she had a presence, a commitment, a sly sardonic cast--qualities that somehow elude Abraham and Peil. Their singing is such that while they're at it, they seem to be inviting sympathy for deficiencies they can't correct.

On the other hand, when Sally Murphy as Jenny delves into "Pirate Jenny," she does so with a sweet, nicely controlled voice. But while the lyrics tell Jenny's vengeful story, somehow Murphy's dulcet delivery misses the ballad's infuriated pith.

The best combination of singer and song is a split between Laura Osnes as Polly Peachum and Lilli Cooper as Lucy Brown, the two women fighting over which is Macheath's favored wife.

Osnes, until recently Broadway's Cinderella and now playing a Cinderella of an entirely different sort, does well with "The Barbara Song," especially when she gets to the damning spoken word "sorry." (This Threepenny is Mark Blitzstein's translation.) Murphy delivers the best turn of the two-act revival with "Ballad of the Drowned Girl," imported here from the Brecht-Weill "Das Berliner Requiem."

What about Macheath? He's played by Michael Park, handsome and chisel-featured in a stylish gray pin-stripped suit. (Donna Zakowska's costumes are '20s-evocative throughout.) And when the score is examined, it's Macheath who delivers Brecht's most cynical advice about surviving in a dog-eat-dog world. Park slings the oom-pah warnings into the audience with verve but lacking Macheath's unrelenting menace. Again a strong voice is fine but not everything.

It's that lack of menace, of danger, of the fear that at any moment a knife could slash an unsuspecting throat that's the prominently missing element in Clarke's approach. Her pacing is the problem. It's one thing to decorate the stage with bawdy details, but when things move this slowly, anything and everything threatening leaks out.

Writing during the Third Reich, Brecht and Weill were responding to the undercurrent of fear running through the defeated post-Great War Germans as they appropriated Gay's tale of the amoral man--amorality being a hallmark of the time--creeping round the corners of society, even eventually brought to the gallows and escaping death.

If there is little or no edge to what Macheath is about as he cheats his way through the city, facing as an equal another larcenous competitor, befriending corrupt officials, dangling women on strings, bribing precinct police and enmeshed in other skulking activities, then it's a Threepenny Opera in a pickle.

Speaking of dogs: For Clarke's opening tableau, she has a bulldog (Romeo) licking the leg of a collapsed lady of the night. Romeo returns much later as Queen Victoria on a cart, thereby providing Clarke's best sight gag. When it struck Clarke that the English monarch and a bulldog are unmistakable lookalikes, she must have had a good laugh. (Well, the bulldog is the Great Britain mascot.) And now everyone else is in on the joke. Nevertheless, when a dog steals a show by way of a couple of four-legged walk-ons, you know something major is amiss.