Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn are the country's foremost acting couple. Like Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, their only American peers in this century, the Cronyns have interwoven a silken artistry of characterization with the homespun fabric of marriage as depicted by people who are actually married. Audiences delight equally in seeing the Cronyns become other people and in watching them be themselves. In The Fourposter, A Delicate Balance, The Gin Game and Foxfire, and in the 1985 hit movie Cocoon, they have specialized in verbal thunder that subsided into affectionate resolution. Their careers have been a metaphor for a safe haven following storm-tossed seas.
They do not quite seem ageless, but Tandy, 76, is still an extraordinary beauty who can move with the grace and assurance of a girl. Cronyn, 74, is jug-eared, a bit gnomish, light of step although weighted with dignity. Despite an apparent reservoir of youth, the Cronyns have decided that The Petition, which opened on Broadway last week, will be their final two-hander. The demands of learning huge parts and performing them for two hours nonstop, eight times a week, loom large. Not, however, too large: The Petition displays them at the full height of their rhetorical powers and the full depth of their painstaking domestic detail. This melodrama about a day of revelations between a retired general and his wife of 50-plus years could seem slight and overly familiar. The Cronyns transmute its pathos into tragedy, its vinegar into wit.
Credit for this uncluttered persuasion must be shared with Director Sir Peter Hall, who runs Britain's National Theater, and Playwright Brian Clark (Whose Life Is It Anyway?). The text is admirably conversational, free of epigrams and posturings. The only awkward element is John Bury's too metaphorical set, which represents a single room by two pie slices, one beige and soft and feminine, the other dark and wood-paneled and clubbily masculine; between these adjacent yet irreconcilable environs is a distracting black cone of void.
The finest example of the two actors' craft comes just before the first-act curtain. Tandy has told Cronyn a secret she has concealed for a year: she has terminal cancer and is about to die. Technically, the scene is over. The last words have been spoken. What makes the next couple of moments so extraordinary is the nature of the stunned silence with which Cronyn receives her confession. He pulls back, his hands slipping from beneath hers. Then he rises, goes to the sideboard, picks up a drink he had fixed earlier and sets it down, with the precise, fussy gestures of an officer and a gentleman, on a table next to the armchair that serves as his household island of retreat. He pauses and, instead of sitting, walks back to the sofa, where he perches, takes her hands, lifts one and kisses it gently, looks at her in bleary confusion and finally shifts his careworn gaze away. In that fumbling counterpoint of selfishness and tenderness, Cronyn and Tandy express the patterns of a lifetime together.
About a block away from where this simple beauty unfolds stands a theater named the Lunt-Fontanne. If a sense of justice prevails among the real estate magnates who run Broadway these days, before too long there will also be a Cronyn-Tandy Theater. --By William A. Henry III