The Washington Times, September 4, 1994

    Theatre Review:
    "An Inspector Calls"
    Nearly 50 years later, J.B. Priestley's  thrilling melodrama is still worthy of

    By Bruce Kluger

    I've always maintained that there are two
    fundamental reasons for reviving a piece of theater:
    To give a worthwhile but previously misunderstood
    work another shot at immortality; or, more simply, to
    revisit a perennial favorite just for the fun of it,
    dusting off the years to enjoy once again the
    awesome journey that only good theater can

    Yet in the case of Broadway's multi-Tony Award-
    winning play, An Inspector Calls (which opened in
    April, transplanted from a well-received stint on
    London's West End), I can think of another motive
    for theatrical resurrection: To reframe an otherwise
    ordinary piece of writing against the backdrop of a
    changing world, permitting the light of the playwright's words to refract through the
    prism of passing years.

    And waitwhile we're at it, we may as well mention still another reason a play like
    Inspector merits a comeback: To allow genius stage craftsmenin this case
    director Stephen Daldry and designer Ian MacNeilto gussy up an aging work with
    their own brand of modern day theatrical magic. It is perhaps in this last endeavor
    that An Inspector Calls best earns its return.
    But first the story. Written by J.B. Priestley, An Inspector Calls is part melodrama,
    part passion play, part good old-fashioned thriller. It is 1912, and the upper crust
    (though not as upper as they'd like to be) Birling family is celebrating the
    engagement of daughter Sheila to Gerald Croft (now he's upper), the son of the
    town bigwig.

    All goes swimmingly until the arrival of one Inspector Goole (Kenneth Cranham), a
    squat, trench-coated, irritable man with a mission. Goole informs the celebrants of
    the death of a local woman, a commoner who has apparently committed suicide by
    swallowing disinfectant.

    Naturally, the Birlings and Croft deny knowing anything about the incidentor the
    woman, for that matter. But Inspector Goole presses on, summoning each
    interviewee, one at a time, from their twinkling house on stilts to the dirty, buckling
    cobblestone street below. Before you can say "I didn't do it," the entire crew is
    implicated in the girl's death, all the while spilling to one another the kind of dirty
    family secrets not usually discussed at the dinner table.

    In the end, the characters clatter back and forth between embracing their
    responsibility in the matter ("We aren't the same people who sat down here to
    dinner; we have to start all over again") and flat out rejecting it ("There is nothing to
    be sorry for, nothing learned, nothing happened"). And therein lies the conflict.

    It is an easy and linear narrative, and one that clearly invites its audience to search
    for the not-so-hidden symbolism. An Inspector Calls was first staged in 1946, a year
    in which humanity was wildly rebounding from the horrors of World War II.
    Accordingly, the play's message wasand remainssimple and succinct: We must
    all care for one another or we will be forced to pay dearly, individually and as a
    global family.

    Like any good metaphor, the subtext of An Inspector Calls plays both long and
    short. On one hand, playwright Priestley sounds a warning cry about the dangers of
    a next worldwide conflagration (or, more presciently, perhaps, about the perils of
    attempting to rewrite history to exclude the hideousness of the Holocaust). On a
    plainer level, though, Priestley asks us simply to be good and kind people, "We
    must care for each other," one character begins to understand out loud during the
    evening. "We have to share our guilt," admits another.

    Back in the late 1940s, such an acknowledgement was more or less retrospective,
    a post-game, locker-room rehash of the century's worst war. But today, in a world of
    drive-by shootings and vanquished African tribes and passenger jets that are sent
    plummeting to the earth by terrorists, Inspector's plea for goodness and social
    responsibility strikes a uneasy chord, one that reminds us that we're yet again
    speeding toward the brink of something awful and that we'd best step on the brake.

    But, alas, theater is not Sunday school, and to keep Inspector narrative from
    becoming overly sermonizing, the team of Mr. Daldry and Mr. MacNeil captivates
    the audience with an unrelenting sensory onslaught. (Not since the magnificent
    triple-whammy of M Butterfly's costumes, set and staging can I remember getting
    that much bang out my orchestra seat's buck.)

    An Inspector Calls opens with a rainstorm on stage. Literally. From there, the
    director and designer seem bentobsessed, almoston illustrating for us the kind
    of class division that leads to societal calamity; a world that is "a battlefield, not a
    home," in which "criminals and citizens" share the same interests.

    Perched high on rickety legs, the Birling family home is glittery but cramped. Below,
    street urchins and townsfolk (looking for all the world like the supporting cast of Our
    Town: The Dark Side) swarm around the house, quiet but rapt, envious but
    emotionally detached. Even the outer reaches of the setthe decaying gold-leafed
    proscenium, the too-short rear cycloramapen the players in, suggesting a sort of
    deadly limbo-land outside the tiny universe of center stage and the inspector's

    But director Daldry doesn't demand that his actors stay within the play's contextual
    confines. With casual audacity, the beleaguered characters frequently face front
    and dispassionately fire their lines through the ever evaporating fourth wall,
    charging the audience to weigh the playwright's words on their own. Such a device
    provides just enough spectacle to keep the play's didacticism in check.

    Courtesy of Stephen Warbeck, a perpetual current of musicprimarily deep,
    disturbing cellosswells from the pit arrogantly, lifting the action to melodramatic
    heights, then just as suddenly dropping it, undercutting its own rich melodies with
    dead silence as if to play a practical joke on our senses.

    Rick Fisher's lighting, meanwhile, paces Inspector's Goole's interrogation perfectly,
    growing starker and eerier as Goole zeros infrom a mysterious gray-blue to an
    unsettling yellow. Mr. MacNeil's costumes similarly deconstruct over the course of
    the inquiry. Having begun the evening draped in gowns and black tie, the cast is
    ultimately reduced to soiled skirts and gray blankets, as the playwright strips them
    of the trappings that had once convinced them that they were above reproach.

    The cast of An Inspector Calls could not be better. Stage veterans Rosemary Harris
    and Philip Bosco march through their performances as Sybil and Arthur Birling with
    the precise dose of haughty indignationMiss Harris clinging to her airs and
    matching the inspector's unyielding paroxysm bit by brazen bit, and Mr. Bosco
    puffing away at his cigar, only occasionally arching an eyebrow to let us know he's
    beginning to buckle.

    Understudy Harry Carnahan found the appropriate marks as the Birling's weak,
    alcoholic son, Eric, while Mr. Cranham's turn as Inspector Goole strikes the
    appropriate blend of preachiness and provocation (though his pique sometimes
    drifts a bit over the top.)

    But it is Jane Adams and Aden Gillett (as Sheila and her fiance, Gerald) who
    provide the truest engine for Priestley's prose. Sheila is the first to catch on that
    she and her family are culpable for the crime, and Miss Adams' fine texturing of this
    bit of dawning is touching and deft. As her less-than-upright betrothed (let's not
    give too much away), Mr. Gillett hangs tough, posturing defiantly in the face of
    accusation, but backing off his manly resolve when he knows that the inspector
    and Sheilaare on to him.

    By itself, An Inspector Calls is not a historic piece of writing, nor are its showy
    presentation and fine performances, in a vacuum, unprecedented. But when taken
    together and hoisted onto the stage of the Royale Theatre, it is a compelling and
    handsome piece of theaterall the reason for this landmark and worthy revival.

                      Three-and-one-half stars (out of four)
    WHAT: An Inspector Calls
    WHERE: Royale Theatre, 242 W. 45th Street, New York City
    WHEN: Opened April 27; no closing date
    TICKETS: $40 to $65
    PHONE: 212-239-6200
    RUNNING TIME: 110 minutes