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NOT FUNNY: British actress Helen Mirren, 64, wasn’t amused Friday night in Washington, when the audience at the Sidney Harman Center laughed wholeheartedly on at least five occasions during her three-hour, nonstop performance of the tragedy “Phedre.” Playing the randy Greek queen in French playwright Jean Racine’s 1677 play, Mirren tackled the text with an ingenue’s insouciance infecting translator Ted Hughes’ irony with her own brand of girlish whimsy. Onstage, her elfin smiles and coy hand gestures seemed more impish than gut wrenching. But backstage, her frustration was palpable. According to one cast member, Mirren was “disturbed,” and at one point as she faced another volley of laughter from the audience, she stormed backstage to rail about what was going wrong. When asked about the laughter, director Nicholas Hytner told WWD that, while the show had elicited “occasional laughter,” Friday night’s audience was “freaky.”

During the play’s run, Mirren is staying at the British ambassador’s house while the rest of the cast holds up at the Hampton Inn in Chinatown. On Friday, at the end of the 10-day, sold-out D.C. run, British Ambassador Nigel Sheinwald and his wife, Julia, who prevailed on Hytner to bring the company to Washington, plan to host a luncheon in Mirren’s honor the day before her last show.


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