By Paul Birchall

If you want to see director Nicholas Hytner's smart and compelling production of Alan Bennett's new drama at the National Theater of Great Britain, you could certainly fly to London, endure the hideous exchange rate, and fight your way to the South Bank through the Civil War that's sure to erupt between Labour, Conservatives, and LibDems. Or, if that's a little too much trouble, you could just shlep on over to the Mann's Chinese Theater this Sunday at 2, where the National Theatre is going to re-broadcast their live taping of the April 22 matinee performance of the piece.

Bennett's play, the latest work by the author of the Tony Award-winning The History Boys and the Oscar-winning Madness of King George,

is an intellectual marvel, teeming with articulate, brittle, but

emotionally charged dialogue and flawed, adroitly rendered

characterizations. It imagines a meeting, in the early 70s, between

decaying literary lion W. H. Auden (Richard Griffiths) and composer

Benjamin Britten (Alex Jennings) about the possibility of Auden writing

the libretto for Britten's intended opera of Death in Venice.


craggy-faced, slatternly Auden is languishing in filthy, forgotten

squalor in an Oxford apartment, where his literary reputation is at

odds with his depressing reality – early in the play, when a BBC

reporter (Adrian Scarborough) shows up to interview him, Auden at first

mistakes him for a male prostitute and orders him to take down his


When the uptight, emotionally rigid Britten, Auden's estranged

friend from long ago, subsequently arrives for an unexpected visit, the

strained interactions between the two great men are interspersed with bitchy cut ins, with the ensemble

playing actors rehearsing the play we're seeing, replete with uptight

stage manager (Frances De La Tour) and author (Elliot Levey) bickering

over the goings on.

Hytner's staging, which crisply shifts from the

inner play to the rehearsal scenes, artfully embraces a variety of

compelling themes – the play's an elegy to human decline, a celebration

of the theater, and an analysis of the toll demanded by the creation of

art – all within the context of dialogue so full of sharp exchanges you

could cut your gums on them.

The Habit of Art is the latest in the

National Theatre's season of high definition broadcasts, originally

aired live to movie theaters around the world. However, clever theater

managers have discovered that there's no reason why the live broadcast

can't be replayed for more audiences at a later date. Although it is no

substitute for the power of a live experience, it is not a bad thing if

one doesn't feel like a 10 hour plane flight.

Mann's Chinese Theater 6,

6801 Hollywood Blvd, Hollywood. Sunday May 16 at 2. A National Theater of Great Britain Production.

Check back here Monday for reviews of:

BLANK Brian Stanton's play. Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., L.A.; Thurs., Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru May 23. (323) 960-5770.
THE DEVIL'S EYE Demon Theater celebrates Ingmar Bergman by presenting this stage adaptation of one of his screenplays about an Irish proverb on a woman's chastity. Arena Stage at Theater of Arts (formerly the Egyptian Arena Theater), 1625 N. Las Palmas Ave., L.A.; opens May 14; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru June 5. (323) 960-7863.

FOUR PLACES In Joel Drake Johnson's darkly humorous play, a weekly family outing takes some unimaginable turns. Theatre/Theater, 5041 Pico Blvd., L.A.; opens May 14; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru June 13. (323) 422-6361.

HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING  Ed Asner will narrate the ensemble musical homage to corporate America. UCLA Freud Playhouse, Macgowan Hall, Westwood; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; thru May 23. (310) 825-2101.

THE KING OF THE DESERT CoActive Content presents a Mexican American boy's journey of self-discovery though adulthood and the realization of his dreams, written by Stacey Martino. El Centro Theatre, 804 N. El Centro Ave., L.A.; Thurs.-Fri., 8 p.m.; thru June 11. (323) 960-5774.

LENNY BRUCE IS BACK (AND BOY IS HE PISSED)  Ronnie Marmo is the comedy
legend. Theatre 68, 5419 Sunset Blvd., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 6 p.m.; thru May 16. (323) 467-6688.

LONDON'S SCARS Richard Martin Hirsch's drama about a London psychologist who learns a patient may have played a part in a bombing. Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru June 27. (310) 477-2055.

LOVE, LOSS, AND WHAT I WORE A collection of stories by Nora Ephron and Delia Ephron. Cast includes Caroline Aaron, Carol Kane, Natasha Lyonne, Tracee Ellis Ross and Rita Wilson. Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; Sat., 3 & 8 p.m.; thru June 26. (310) 208-5454.

1951-2006 Donald Freed's 50-year love story that takes place on the 4th floor of an East Side Brownstone. Los Angeles Theater Center, 514 S. Spring St., L.A.; Thurs.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru June 13. (213) 489-0994.

PALOMINO David Cale portrays seven characters in a sensuous tale that follows Kieren McGrath, a mysterious Central Park carriage driver. Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m.; thru June 6. (213) 628-2772.

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