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‘Lucifer’s Child,’ Starring Julie Harris, Opens on Broadway

April 5, 1991

NEW YORK (AP) _ Julie Harris is a theatrical miracle worker but even she can’t make any stage magic out of ″Lucifer’s Child,″ an inert monodrama by William Luce.

The play, which opened Thursday at Broadway’s Music Box Theater, is an earth-bound ramble through the life of Danish writer Karen Blixen, who wrote under the name Isak Dinesen.

Most people know Dinesen as the author of ″Out of Africa,″ her vivid remembrances of Kenya during the 1920s that became an Academy Award-winning movie starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford.

There are bits and pieces of those remembrances in ″Lucifer’s Child,″ but not enough. The first act takes place on New Year’s Eve 1958, right before Dinesen’s first visit to the United States. Act 2 occurs four months later after the journey has taken place.

Luce, who also wrote Harris’ greatest one-woman success, ″The Belle of Amherst,″ makes no effort to frame the play in any kind of dramatic context. The elderly, dying Dinesen, living at the family homestead in Denmark, simply begins chattering away to the audience about her exotic life.

And she does go on and on. The focal point of her life was that celebrated trip to Africa as the wife of Baron Bror von Blixen. He gave her a title and also the disease - syphilis - that eventually was to claim her life.

Dinesen’s marriage didn’t last but her love affair with Kenya did. The evening’s few interesting moments are her recollections of that unusual land.

They include her liaison with the dashing pilot Denys Finch Hatton, who died in a plane crash, as well as her affectionate portraits of the natives who served her during those years on her husband’s coffee plantation.

But the audience never gets the sense of what a wonderful writer Dinesen was. Her remembrances are better read on the printed page rather than spoon fed in snippets by Harris.

A lot of the evening is wasted on jokey trivia and name-dropping detail. Dinesen having dinner with Gian Carlo Menotti; Dinesen meeting Marilyn Monroe; Dinesen being lauded by Ernest Hemingway.

One running gag gets especially tiresome. ″A woman’s clothes are an extension of her inner being,″ Dinesen proclaims, so she has names for her clothing.

One particularly severe suit was called Sober Truth. A red wraparound was nicknamed the Cape of Good Hope. There are gloves christened Tristan and Isolde.

Harris, done up in a gray wig and credible makeup, acts all this out with the utmost confidence. Her sandpaper voice takes on a vaguely foreign accent. She moves comfortably across Marjorie Kellogg’s cluttered set, filled with the odds and ends of a life lived in two very different cultures.

The actress is a passionate believer in Isak Dinesen, and her commitment to the woman is total. ″To set sail somewhere is more important than life itself,″ Dinesen says, and Harris has the confidence of a true adventurer. But the playwright hasn’t given her much material for a glorious journey.

The title ″Lucifer’s Child″ comes from what Dinesen called her pact with the devil. What she got in exchange for her soul was the gift of storytelling - ″tales the whole world would read.″

Those tales, when they appear at all, don’t come alive on the Music Box stage. They seem like footnotes to one talkative woman’s exhausting life. ″Lucifer’s Child″ is not only ″Out of Africa″ but it is lost on Broadway, too.

What other critics said:

Frank Rich, The New York Times: What is moving about ″Lucifer’s Child″ is Miss Harris, not its sketchy glimpse of its famous subject. She is an actress in the grand manner, but refreshingly, she is never grand.

Howard Kissel, The Daily News: ... an ineptly written and directed play ... The pity is that Harris moves and speaks with her customary grace. Few actresses are so appealing simply stepping on the stage. Why can’t someone produce her in a real play?

Clive Barnes, New York Post: ... she (Harris) and Luce do not provide a portrait of a lady entertaining enough to justify even a comparatively brief evening in her company.

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