09/16/2011 12:44 pm ET | Updated Nov 16, 2011

Stage Door: Follies, Dally With The Devil

The revival of Follies is perfection. One of Stephen Sondheim's most moving scores, it features two remarkable stars -- Bernadette Peters and Jan Maxwell -- and an extraordinary meditation on longing and regret. Now at the Marquis Theater, the production is a glorious reminder that musicals need not be draped in special effects to captivate us.

It's 1971, and the Weismann Theater, famed for its lavish revues and beautiful girls, is about to be torn down. The women, who performed between the world wars, 30 to 50 years earlier, reunite for one soulful night, a nostalgic journey into youth. But this isn't a sweet remembrance; the memories are tinged with bitterness and sorrow.

Two couples -- Buddy (Danny Burstein and Sally (a beautifully calibrated Peters) and Phyllis (a rueful, ravishing Jan Maxwell) and Ben (Ron Raines) -- play out their failed marriages, we bear witness to the complicated sadness of failed expectation, lingering love and the tyranny of time.

As ghosts of the follies, women in elaborate costumes stand in the shadows, the foreground blends past and present. For the marital pairs, versions of their younger selves commingle with their middle-aged realities. Only the surface looks traditional; hidden desire and decades of rage are to come.

Sally has been pining for Ben for 30 years; as Peters' heartbreaking rendition of "Losing My Mind" recounts her passion, she teeters on madness. When a now sophisticated Phyllis confronts her estranged husband with "Could I Leave You?" she hurls venom even as she proclaims her independence. Similarly, Ben and Buddy, both delivering strong performances, recount their own marital blues -- one in vaudevillian style, the other in top hat and tails. Each man is crushed and liberated by his own realizations.

Follies is Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman's tribute to a bygone Broadway era and a potent emotional journey through time and illusion. Sondheim is the poet laureate of heartbreak. It is elegantly directed by Eric Schaeffer, aided by Derek McLane's sets and terrific supporting players: Elaine Paige, Jane Houdyshell, Rosalind Elias and Mary Beth Peil, who belt out their particular numbers, like "I'm Still Here" and "Broadway Baby," with relish. This is a production to savor.

Conversely, politics is a world to suspect. Political skullduggery is status quo in today's elections. Each side digs up dirt -- the difference may be in what constitutes scandal. In Dally With The Devil at the Beckett Theater, the self-righteous GOP operative (Elizabeth A. Davis) threatens a marital scandal, while the Democratic academic-turned-political insider (Elizabeth Norment) traffics in good old-fashion corruption charges.

It's appalling that corruption is given the same weight as infidelity, though it reflects the media's obsession with tabloid headlines versus enterprise reporting.

Both women, backing their respective Senate candidates, are trying to elicit the goodwill of Charlotte, a powerful blogger (Erika Rolfsrud), who claims only to solicit "truth." In fact, she loves trolling through the sludge -- both personal and professional. That Charlotte fills an important watchdog function isn't in dispute. It's her methods and sometimes, the inability to determine what's important from what's salacious, that's called into question.

Unfortunately, Victor Cahn's script is lackluster, while the plot twist is predictable. And despite the addition of Rolfsrud, who gave a terrific performance two years ago in the Pearl's Misalliance, the acting is dull and forced. These are three powerful women, but they sound more like bitchy sorority girls. The insularity and amorality of candidates and their handlers is obvious; what's needed is a clear, sharp-witted critique of such realities.