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Theater review: 'The Browning Version' at Pacific Resident Theatre

November 19, 2009 |  4:15 pm

400.DSC_7040r For academically inclined middle-class Brits, a teaching post at an elite English boarding school might have an understandably seductive appeal. But as a retiring classics teacher surveys his life in Terence Rattigan's incisive 1948 drama, "The Browning Version," it's all too apparent that the school's cocoon-like insularity and well-ordered routines  have become his personal quicksand.

In Pacific Resident Theatre's intimate revival, Marilyn Fox's pitch-perfect staging nails the emotional delicacy in the descent and resurrection of Andrew Crocker-Harris (Bruce French). Facing his final days as a faculty member and an empty road ahead, Andrew has already conceded that he's wasted his life. Mocked as a tyrannical pedant by his students, betrayed by his serial adulterer wife (effectively brittle, frustration-driven Sally Smythe), and humiliated by his headmaster (Orson Bean, in a superbly oily, condescending turn), French's Andrew embodies in the subtlest inflections both full awareness and resigned acceptance of his pathetic circumstances.

This English upper-lip reserve plays like ice compared with the fire in Edward Albee's later American take on academia-induced stagnation, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf." Yet beneath its genteel veneer,  Rattigan's play seethes with condemnation and scorn for England's rigid class system. Playing to a different national sensibility, director Fox (with support from associate director Dana Dewes) impeccably retains the accents, manners and subtext, but focuses on the simpler but more fundamental heart of the play: a brilliant mind rescued from despair by a simple act of kindness.

In this case, that act involves a parting gift from one of Andrew's students (Justin Preston), who had earlier demonstrated his proficiency in satirizing Andrew's bombastic teaching style. Also coming to Andrew's aid is a younger teacher (Michael Balsley), who gives up something important in switching sides.

Fox -- and Rattigan -- are careful to frame this within the believable bounds of real life, with its limited opportunities and sadly partial victories. Yet in the simple acts of defiance with which Andrew finally reclaims his own destiny, there lies a moving affirmation of resilience and human dignity.

-- Philip Brandes

"The Browning Version," Pacific Resident Theatre, 703 Venice Blvd., Venice. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Dec. 20. $20-25. (310) 822-8392. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.

Photo: Sally Smythe and Michael Balsley. Photo credit: Vitor Martins.