A Dickens of a Show: NICOLAS NICKELBY

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At $100 a ticket, Nicholas Nickleby is a bargain: 81/2 solid hours of magic

Mr. Curdle (rearing back in astonishment): Four shillings for one play?

Nicholas: Well, with quite a lot of people in it. And it is very long.

Mr. Curdle: It had better be.

Start with the money. One hundred dollars will buy you one sleeve of a Halston ultrasuede jacket, dinner for two at a Manhattan restaurant or tickets to three conventional Broadway shows. It will also get you into the Royal Shakespeare Company's The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, whose first preview performances last week helped launch the new Broadway season. In terms of time and money spent, this sprawling, tumultuous, 8½-hour adaptation of Charles Dickens' 1839 novel is the theatrical bargain of the decade. One off-Broadway musical —five lively actors, 70 easy minutes, the audience seated in chairs designed by a Bauhaus sadist—costs the playgoer 230 a minute. A full day with the Nicklebys costs about 200 a minute. And for each pair of dimes you get another generous, nourishing slice of instant cultural history. Most Broadway shows offer a pleasant enough diversion between sunset and bed; Nickleby will become part of your organism, cast a glow for years to come. So sell the Atari, skip a mortgage payment, pawn the children.

Money cannot often buy the experience that Nickleby provides. But for the next 14 weeks, $100 will.

Rarely has a show landed on Broadway amid such anticipation, fanfare and —so far as the ticket price is concerned —controversy. Just as the Nickleby marquee over the Plymouth Theater dominates Manhattan's West 45th Street, so the R.S.C. production seems sure to set the tone and standard for this season and many to come. It arrives not only as a certified London smash and perhaps a historic theatrical phenomenon but also as a prepackaged television spectacular: the entire performance has been taped for showing as a four-part miniseries on a syndication network in February 1983 so that viewers all across the U.S. will be able to share in the experience.

On a bare stage surrounded by low-tech scaffolding that rises to the rafters and rings the balcony, the R.S.C. tells this 800-page story of a young innocent in the first years of Victoria's reign. The company's 39 actors essay upwards of 250 roles, from weak-willed aristocrat to poor heroic cripple. The play dives into Dickensian bathos, preposterous coincidences, abrupt reversals of fortune, the collision of improbable goodness with impossible evil—and emerges triumphant, soaring with spirit. In the process it displays the grandest theatrical techniques, affirms the Tightness of love and friendship, revives pleasures and poignancies that have all but vanished from modern narrative art. At a time when Broadway is as busy and financially flush as it has been in decades (see following story), the coming of Nickleby demonstrates that it can also accommodate the highest quality. The R.S.C. has fashioned an epic of feeling and intelligence — a vertiginous celebration of life upon the splendid stage.

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