Cynthia Nixon Gives “Miss Jean Brodie” A New Prime - With Some Help from One of Philadelphia’s Own
Every new theater- and cinema-going generation has to have its own Juliet, (mine, Olivia Hussey; the current, Gwyneth Paltrow), its own Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (mine, Elizabeth Taylor; the current, Kathleen Turner), and I am suggesting its own Jean Brodie in The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie. So although Maggie Smith’s is the definitive Bonnie Jean, I fail to understand all the negativity about Cynthia Nixon’s current excellent portrayal in The New Group’s recent production at the Acorn Theatre in New York.
Based on a character in a Muriel Spark novel, (1961) and Jay Presson’s adaptation (1969) and re-adaptation (1998), Jean Brodie has been enlivened by a number of famous actresses. The character, a rebellious teacher in a conservative Scottish girl’s school, so enjoys the sense of power she attains by flouting the rules that she crosses the line between teacher and co-conspirator by encouraging “her girls”- the Brodie set - to grow up a little too quickly and ultimately dangerously. Like other romantics who feel under the spell of Fascism in the 1930s, Jean Brodie ends up destroying not only herself, but also the girls she loves and wants to protect. This parable on the dangers of power and influence has featured intense and powerful actresses including Fiona Shaw (Medea on Broadway several seasons ago) and, of course, Maggie Smith.
So I found it refreshing to discover a softer, gentler and perhaps more dangerous Jean Brodie in the portrayal by Cynthia Nixon. Extremely feminine, alluring and almost playful, Ms. Nixon’s Jean Brodie does not need to be “masculine” to take on “the powers that be.” She runs everyone’s life as if she a very loving, but wiser older sister or best friend. Perhaps more appropriate to the current political climate, she makes few absolute demands of her opponents and only confronts her superiors when she can act the righteous victim. “She never knew the gun was loaded” and the victim was really expendable anyway. Cynthia Nixon plays this dangerous “friend/confidante” Miss Brodie with a feminine élan and esprit that makes her seductively more dangerous.
Of particular interest to Philadelphians is the portrayal of Monica (one of Brodie’s set) by Sarah Steele. Recently featured in Adam Sandler’s movie, Spanglish, Steele is a graduate of John Rea’s MacGuffin’s Theatre and Film Co. and the Episcopal Academy. Portraying one of the inner set from pre-teen through adolescence, Steele demonstrates a marvelous presence, energy and vitality. She’s gone from a performance at the Spark Festival last spring at MumPuppet to Off-Broadway this fall.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie at The Acorn Theatre, 410 West 42nd St, bet. 9th /10th Avenue, through December 9. Tickets, 212.279.4200