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  • Film Review: The Countess

    by Jan Aaron

    If you want to put some sizzle in your holiday theatre-going, see The Countess, at the Lambs Theater. Gregory Murphy’s fact-based drama involves three prominent Victorians: John Ruskin, the most esteemed art critic of his day, John Everett Millais, Ruskin’s protégé who became England’s most prominent artist, and Euphemia (“Effie”) Gray, the lovely Scotswoman who came between them. With its wit and charm, this jewel of a period piece has deservedly become the longest running new drama of the 1999-2000 season. Helping immeasurably its success is the direction by Ludovica Villar-Hauser and sets and costumes by Christopher Lione.

    This year is the centenary of Ruskin’s death and a celebrated exhibit at the Morgan Library ties nicely into this Off-Broadway show. The exhibit includes the original correspondence between Ruskin and his wife Effie, upon which Murphy based his play, as well as sketches and a portrait, which figure into his drama.

    The Countess opens in 1853 when Ruskin (James Riordan), who had married Effie (Jennifer Woodward) in 1848 when he was 29 and she was 19, are off on a vacation with Millais (Jy Murphy) to the Scottish Highlands. Millais has been commissioned to paint Ruskin’s portrait, but the closeness of cottage living upsets their equilibrium. Ruskin’s habit of compromising his wife by leaving her alone with Millais bothers the painter and he is unable to work on the portrait. This private Ruskin, who is so unlike his affable public figure, distresses him. The playwright makes this point by contrasting Ruskin’s urbane public image through snippets of his lectures on art with his cold, demeaning behavior of Effie at the cottage.

    Eventually Millais falls in love with Effie, leaves the cottage, finishes the portrait (it’s at the Morgan), and presents it to Ruskin (a scene in the play). The play ends in London, where Effie leaves her husband for her family in Scotland. In 1854, her marriage was annulled, and soon afterward, Effie married Millais and went on to bear eight children.

    Both Ruskin and Millais are well known. Gray has been largely ignored except for the scandal surrounding her marriage. The Countess (the name of the play comes from Millais’ nickname for her) brings her into the spotlight. But it also does a remarkable job of providing insight into the trouble life of a gifted man. #

    (The Countess, Lambs Theatre, 130 West 44th St. telecharge (212) 239-6200. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 8 pm; matinees Wednesdays and Saturdays, 2 pm. Tickets, $40-$55. Periodically, Victorian Night receptions feature guest speakers. For schedule visit Morgan Library, 29 E. 35th; Ruskin exhibit runs through January 7. For days, times, call (212) 685-0008.)

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