"He's Back, and He's Not Alone"

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What does a child star do when he or she grows up? Macaulay Culkin has had an amazing life, but whether tragic or blessed depends on your point of view. In 1990, aged 10, he starred in the Chris Columbus-directed movie Home Alone which grossed $533.8 million worldwide and made Culkin an international celebrity. By 1994 he commanded a pay packet of $8 million per film. But look at it this way: his parents thrust him into the showbiz world at the age of 4; he was doing commercials by 6, and studying with the choreographer George Balanchine at 8.

At 14, he "divorced" his over-controlling father and, aged 20, he has already been through one marriage. Suddenly an adult, he must be wondering whatever happened to his childhood. However, having not acted professionally since 1994, the all-new grown-up Culkin has taken to the boards to relaunch his career. Following the recent footsteps of Hollywood actors Kathleen Turner, Donald Sutherland and Daryl Hannah, the postpubescent prodigy has set out to win the hearts of London's West End.

And he has tried to do it with real style. No creaking commercial hijack of a classic movie for him (unlike Turner's turn in The Graduate and Hannah's in The Seven Year Itch). Culkin's vehicle is a new play by this year's Tony and Olivier Awards winner Richard Nelson. Alongside him is the classy French actress Irène Jacob. He seemed to have done everything right.

Unfortunately, in Madame Melville Nelson has only delivered one-third of a good play. The story is about a 15-year-old American in Paris who is seduced by his sexually hyperactive teacher. Until the actual seduction, this works very well. A plainly nervous Culkin wandered onstage on opening night at London's Vaudeville theater, looking thin and pale and wearing the uneasy grimace of a plucky boy about to confront the school bully (he still looks to be in his mid-teens). The play is framed by Culkin's character, now middle-aged and looking back on his life. Culkin did not even try to suggest the older man, but once into the main plot he fits the part like a glove — there is something awkward and artless about him which seems genuine on the bare nakedness of the stage. It renders his conquest by the sophisticated senior woman all the more involving.

The shapely Jacob plays these early scenes to perfection as she maneuvers her student into staying the night at her apartment, then inches him toward her bed. Giddily chatting and fluttering around the room, Jacob seems euphoric with the joys of initiation. Here she and the nervy Culkin manage to find real sexual chemistry (though oddly, there is little physical contact).

Yet once the student, Carl, has been happily administered to, both writer and cast are at a loss. Nelson tries to give Madame Melville depth by having her talk about art and (at tedious length) her novel, but it all reeks of a "So what are your hobbies?" post one-night-stand conversation. Neither does Jacob suggest the bohemian passion for life and knowledge that keeps Carl entranced. Nobody seems to think that there may be something morally dubious about a teacher bedding her young student — the French, Nelson appears to say, are too sophisticated for such pedantry.

And Culkin? He is marooned once the writing flags, and he has no stage technique to fall back on. As he ambles through the last hour of this 90-minute play with a broad smile (as well the character might given the circumstances), any hope that the actor's own quest for meaningful adulthood may be echoed in his performance is crushed. His main concession to characterization is the constant brushing back of his blond floppy hair. Nelson's own direction has little pace, and the single set of Madame Melville's apartment inexplicably features several doors hanging in mid-air. Sadly, this is one affair that has nowhere to go and ends badly, just another painful memory.