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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Undaunted Star Rises Once Again

This has been the season of the showcase, that seductive theatrical genre which puts forth a star who, as the raison d'etre for a show, pretty much shapes everything else around him or her.

Productions featuring Vera Vasilyeva (the Novy Drama and Satire theaters), Yury Yakovlev (the Vakhtangov), Natalya Gundareva (the Mayakovsky) and Alexander Kalyagin and Nikolai Karachentsov (Lenkom) have all been crowd-pleasers even if the critical fallout has ranged from the ecstatic to the cynical.

The latest is the Mossoviet Theater's "An Inspector Calls," the mysterious play by J.B. Priestly starring the classy Georgy Zhzhyonov. This revered actor, whose career couldn't be ruined even by 15 years in the labor camps (1939-1954), is looking as fit, sharp and handsome as ever at 81.

Zhzhyonov is probably best loved for his starring roles in the spy film series, "The Resident's Mistake," (1968), "The Fate of the Resident" (1970) and "The Return of the Resident" (1982). However, true or not, legend has it that he was already so popular in 1939 that thieves in prison -- notoriously cruel to political prisoners -- received their new neighbor with open arms.

"Inspector" is directed by Andrei Zhitinkin, a young talent who is fast earning the sobriquet of the Showcase King. Zhitinkin got longtime film star Lyudmila Gurchenko to make her stage debut last season in a frightfully garish but popular production of Eduard Radzinsky's "The Field After the Battle Belongs to Marauders" at the Satire Theater and he was behind Yury Yakovlev's impressive turn earlier this season in "The Sunshine Boys." With Priestly's play, Zhitinkin creates a traditional, static production that settles for the relatively easy target of exposing bourgeois hypocrisy rather than driving deeper for an aggressive deconstruction of psychological and moral duplicity.

Zhzhyonov plays an enigmatic figure who appears out of the blue and disappears into a void. Intruding upon a festive evening in the home of an upper middle-class family, he calls himself a police inspector investigating the murder or suicide of a young woman.

The efforts of the indignant father (Boris Ivanov) and semi-hysterical mother (Nina Drobysheva) to get rid of the unwelcome visitor are in vain, while the inspector calmly pursues his questioning, drawing each member of the family into the field of suspicion. The girl, it seems, was a waif of doubtful character who under different names crossed paths with everyone present and suffered unfairly at their hands. Any one of them could have been the catalyst which sent her to her death.

Zhzhyonov plays a sphinx, revealing no emotion, humor or sympathy. He is, most of all, a presence, a force to be reckoned with. Zhitinkin keeps him almost frozen in a corner of the stage, and from that vantage point his withering eye relentlessly peers through the facades and the self-deceptions of those whom he confronts.

But the revelations hardly end with the inspector's disclosure of the skeletons in the family's closet. After he departs, his own identity and existence become the object of heated debate.

Andrei Sharov's oversized set of a British dining room is dominated by an immense fireplace topped by a huge mirror. From time to time the mirror becomes a window providing Peeping Tom glimpses of people who think they are alone.

Several revivals of "An Inspector Calls" have recently enjoyed success in the United States and England. The Moscow version is markedly more modest, but it has one draw no other can boast: the charismatic Georgy Zhzhyonov as the inspector.

"An Inspector Calls" (On prishyol) plays April 3, 6 and 10 at 7 p.m. at the Mossoviet Theater, 16 Bolshaya Sadovaya. Tel. 299-2035. Running time: 2 hours, 25 mins.