CAST: Annette Bening, Jeremy Irons, Shaun Evans, Michael Gambon, Juliet Stevenson, Bruce Greenwood, Miriam Margolyes, Lucy Punch, Tom Sturridge, Rosemary Harris, Rita Tushingham, Maury Chaykin, Sheila McCarthy, Leigh Lawson

DIRECTOR: Istvan Szabo

SCREENWRITER: Ronald Harwood

It’s 1938 and Hitler’s troops are goose-stepping their way toward Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland. Meanwhile, Julia Lambert (Annette Bening), reigning star of the British theater, is blind to the Nazi blitz headed her way. She is nevertheless in a funk. Why is that? Partly because her marriage to impresario Michael Gosselyn (Jermey Irons) is duller than fish and chips and partly because it has dawned on her that she will never again play the fluttery ingenue.

Obviously, what Julia needs is a devoted stud who’ll make her feel desirable again. Which is precisely what she finds in Tom Fennell (Shaun Evans), a penniless young American to whom she’s been introduced by her thoughtful husband (whose own blatant philandering doesn’t seem to bother her one bit). After making it clear that he is Julia’s most ardent fan, Tom, impudent pup that he is, makes it even clearer that he will be at his most ardent between the sheets. And he certainly makes good on his promise--the one question being, is this handsome, hotblooded Yank absolutely sincere in his professed adoration of Julia? The hurtful answer comes in the person of a brazenly available blonde (Lucy Punch) making her West End debut acting the fluttery ingenue in Julia’s new play.

When the truth about Tom’s foolery surfaces, does Julia bear the news with a stiff upper lip, or does she exact a sublimely bitchy revenge? You surely know the answer to that one, even if you haven’t read “Theater,” W. Somerset Maugham’s affectionate portrait of narcissistic stage folk upon which Ronald Harwood based his screenplay. The true surprise is that, under the adroit direction of Istvan Szabo, a game, attractive cast comes close to making us believe that this creaky nonsense is fresh and meaningful. Jeremy Irons is at his elegant best as Julia’s vain but compassionate spouse, and American beauty Annette Bening is a ravishing blend of ice and fire as the wise, foolish, driven, vulnerable, British-to-the-core diva. The woman's bloody ravishing.