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There's no New York theater critic who likes to throw his weight around quite like Michael Riedel of the Post. Riedel's latest beef is with legendary Spamalot director Mike Nichols' version of Clifford Odets' The Country Girl, which goes before critics for the first time tonight. Although he has yet to view the play, Riedel has spewed constant venom about the production, with his favorite target the show's star, much-honored screen veteran Morgan Freeman. The 70-year-old Freeman made the grave error of substituting the name "Mabel Mercer" for "Mabel Beck" this week in previews, and Riedel smelled blood, terming Freeman "Morgan the Mangler" and describing the actor's reported flubbing of every other line. Tomorrow the play opens to critics, but we saw the show last night, and are happy to report Riedel's nastiness is wholly unmerited. More on how wrong Michael Riedel is about this revival of a play Frank Rich termed "near the top of second-rate" after the jump.

Riedel's problems with The Country Girl don't end with its star. Riedel originally let loose on reported changes in the first act, and then claimed a hard-won victory after a six-page scene was re-inserted by Nichols. In last night's performance, the scene appeared as is, and the whole of Odets' vision is remarkably well transformed to the modern stage considering it originally debuted in 1950. The show didn't lack for energy or star power in entertaining an almost full house last night at the Jacobs Theatre, running at just over two hours.

While Riedel actually does have a point when he highlights the show's weak pre-sales at the box office, and the producers' draconian efforts to ban the media until tonight's performance, he misses the mark when it comes to Freeman's charisma, appeal, and talent.

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In last night's preview, Freeman didn't screw up a single line in portraying washed-up actor Frank Elgin's return to the stage, and he'll entertain in his first return to Broadway since he starred in The Gospel at Colonus (left) 20 years ago. You remember. Fargo star Frances McDormand plays his wife and Peter Gallagher is his director; both are marvelous complements to Freeman's charming performance as a drunken washed-up loser. Yes, the venerable actor added fuel to Reidel's fire by telling the Times this week that [m]ostly I don’t want to do stage. It’s too much work. Movies, you do a little work, make a lot of money and move on," but hopefully the response to The Country Girl will cause him to change his mind. And if not, Riedel will claim credit for that, too.

Cobras and 'Country' [New York Post]

Assassin [New York]