You can't see his blue eyes. Not even from the close-up seats they give to theater critics, much less a vantage point farther back in the house, where most folks have to sit. In fact, fans of Paul Newman the movie star may find little they recognize in his first appearance on Broadway in 38 years (and even longer, if you forget about 1964's Baby Want a Kiss, which most people have).
Like many other actors who have become Hollywood icons, Newman thinks he would have led a worthier life if he had done more theater. So he chose to make his return to the stage (in a production first seen at the Westport Country Playhouse, where his wife Joanne Woodward is artistic director) in Our Town, Thornton Wilder's oft produced slice of Americana, which is given some 350 stagings around the country each year. As the Stage Manager--the fourth-wall-bursting narrator who introduces us to the town of Grover's Corners and its bashful young lovers, George Gibbs and Emily Webb--Newman is at the front of the stage for much of the show but in the shadows for most of the drama. He has no showy emotional moments, his thin voice struggles to fill the house, and there's no camera to help us fathom the depths of his twinkling eyes and brooding face.
Still, Newman, 77, projects a relaxed authority that downplays the drama's sentimentality and stiffens its philosophical spine. His now wispy body and white hair make him more grandfatherly than ever. But he comes across less as a sage or authorial god than as a matter-of-fact neighbor who just happens to have stuck around long enough to tell the story. It's in keeping with Wilder's paean to those mundane details of life that we take for granted--and that pass away all too fleetingly. "You know how it is," Newman says, leaping at the line as he does for no other in the play, "you're 21 or 22, and you make some decisions; then--whish!--you're 70." Newman has lived it, and we've lived it with him.
There's something else important that Newman brings to Our Town: modesty. He lets other actors take the limelight, especially Frank Converse and Jeffrey DeMunn, as the fathers of the young lovers; Stephen Spinella, who writes his own play in a couple of vivid scenes as the drunken choirmaster; and Maggie Lacey, who makes a fetching Broadway debut as Emily. Aside from adding some understated sound effects--a newspaper plopping on the porch, the bell when a soda fountain's front door opens and shuts--director James Naughton leaves the play alone. And left alone, it is as moving as ever.
Just listen to the audience in those last 20 minutes as the dead, arrayed in simple chairs in the town cemetery, talk of the ineffable sadness of the living--"how troubled and...how in the dark live persons are," as one puts it. It's a sound that has become increasingly rare in the theater: silence. No coughs, no fidgeting in seats. It's a sure sign that the play has done its chief job: it has got the audience's attention. By this point, we have all but forgotten that Our Town is the vehicle for a big star's comeback on Broadway. And that may be Paul Newman's finest moment. --By Richard Zoglin