NEW YORK, May 3 (UPI) -- An ancient variation on the Helen of Troy legend has provided playwright Ellen McLaughlin with the idea for a delectably funny but touching comic tragedy about the drawbacks of a woman's being beautiful when she has more to offer than cosmetic allure.
"Helen," currently playing at the Public Theater, breaks with the Homeric legend that Helen was at Troy with her abductor, Paris, while the Greeks besieged the city to get her back for her husband, Menelaus, the Spartan king. It goes instead with a revisionist story that originated with an obscure 6th century B.C. poet, Stesichorus, that Helen was whisked by the gods to Egypt and sat out the siege there.
This story was adopted by the historian Herodotus and espoused by Euripides in his play, "Helen," which has Menelaus complaining that the Greeks had been swindled by the gods and that the Helen they thought they saw on Troy's ramparts was only a phantom cloud, to which a servant observes, "You mean it was for a cloud, for nothing, we did all that work?"
McLaughlin's intermissionless play is caught up in a time warp that slips from the present to the past and back again. As the curtain rises, Helen has been holed up in modern Cairo hotel room for 17 years, unaware of the outcome of the Trojan War or that Menelaus has been shipwrecked on his way to rescue her and take her back to Sparta.
Baffled at having been forgotten by the gods, she has only television that provides her with local news and weather and stories told to her by a sympathetic woman servant to help her pass the time. Her hobby is swatting flies and taking count of her kill at the end of the day.
"Helen interested me because she's a female character who is utterly passive and has beauty as her most shaping quality," McLaughlin said in an interview. "Her very ostensible innocence of responsibility for the havoc wreaked in her name can make one impatient with her.
"Helen's tragedy is that she is so difficult to take seriously, and it's hard to have compassion for her. Her plight is pervasive -- no less for the passage of thousands of years. I find myself surrounded by Helens in modern culture, and our complex love-hate relationship with her is just as fraught as it ever was."
In the role of Helen is an unlikely choice -- Donna Murphy, who struck stardom on Broadway eight seasons ago as the frumpy, ugly, man-eating heroine of Stephen Sondheim's "Passion," a role that won her the first of her two Tony Awards. But this new role allows Murphy to revel in her own golden-haired beauty as none of her previous roles have.
Beauty of the kind that launched a thousand ships is just one of Murphy's attributes as an actress. She is a perfectly pitched performer with a melodiously alluring voice and a talent for graceful movement that is wonderfully choreographed to express her utter boredom at being shut away from society for nearly two decades, seemingly forgotten by history.
But in the course of the play she begins to have visitors from the outside world, including Io (a very amusing Johanna Day), who was turned into a cow after being seduced by Zeus; Athena (a swaggering Phylicia Rashad), the armor-clad goddess of war; and the long-awaited Menelaus (Denis O'Hare), a cuddly, war-weary hero all too willing to forgive Helen the frivolous life style forced on her by beauty.
Last but not least in this strong cast is the Servant, played to the zany hilt by one of the first ladies of the American theater, Marian Seldes. To watch Seldes slither about the stage using the studied arm and hand poses so familiar in ancient Egyptian art, toadying to Helen's every whim while making fun of her with her beady eyes and disapproving mouth, is worth the price of admission to this show.
She's just not any servant, but a very wise old crone who sums up Helen's tragedy in these words: "She is so beautiful that her image was replicated in infinite proliferation, until finally she could to longer be said to belong to herself alone."
Tony Kushner, the Tony Award winning playwright for "Angels in America," has taken time off from writing to direct "Helen," a confined play that provides very little opportunity for action except for dramatic entrances and exits made by visitors on the elaborate French-style elevator that opens into Helen's room. Yet he manages to keep thing moving interestingly.
The wrought iron design of the elevator and the vaguely Moorish arches of the room are part of a set designed by Michael Yeargan and seductively lit by Scott Zielinski to compliment the elaborate architecture of the theater itself, the former main reading room of the original Astor Library that was transformed into a complex of theaters to house the Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival.
Susan Hilferty's costume designs are Hollywood leading lady circa 1955 for Helen and Greek and Egyptian, deliciously exaggerated, for the rest of the cast.