If anyone can make an unknowable world leader feel known, it is Helen Mirren. In 2006, this formidable dramatic force put a human face on Elizabeth II's cracking royal facade after Princess Diana's death in the 2006 film "The Queen."
Now Mirren returns to the monarch -- and to fortunate Broadway -- with "The Audience," Peter Morgan's companion piece to his screenplay for "The Queen." In this one, the actress portrays the sovereign from ages 26 through 88, with astonishing stops back and forth across the decades, with magical quick changes of dreamy gowns, dowdy dresses and shades of graying finger-wave wigs.
What could have been an acting stunt is instead a rich, deep portrait of a woman who, somehow, is deeply revealed without giving much of her mysterious self away.
The windows into her being and into shifting politics are pure imagination -- Morgan's fictionalized idea of things that might have been said during the private weekly audiences the queen has held over the years with 12 of Britain's prime ministers. The production, expertly directed by Stephen Daldry, puts these unpredictable exchanges within the strict formality of the palace -- designed by Bob Crowley as arching gilt entrances within entrances, stretching back in diminishing perspective to a speck of red drapes in the distance.
Our guide, the Equerry (Geoffrey Beevers), explains the ritual. The actual history, given the limitations of the play's form, tends toward push-button insights and characters defined by their fidgets. John Major (Dylan Baker) squirms his feet and weeps at his unpreparedness for the pressure. The Labour Party's Harold Wilson (the excellent Richard McCabe) twitches his hands nervously at the first meeting but finds his social conscience matches her own. Gordon Brown (Rod McLachlan) worries about his depression and bounces his knee.
Young Elizabeth learns her duty -- that the Crown must never disagree with the Government -- from an aged Winston Churchill (Dakin Matthews). Mature Elizabeth does not back down from the selfish philosophy of Margaret Thatcher (Judith Ivey, who's a bit cartoony). Two playful corgis are irresistible, but even the most passionate animal lover may find them distracting.
Central pieces of the Elizabeth puzzle come with girlish flashbacks to her 11-year-old self (an enchanting Sadie Sink), suddenly struggling against being "trapped in a museum" in a life she doesn't want. Mirren, her legs demurely crossed at the ankle and hands folded, expresses layers of depth with just a tilt of her head. Neither a Shakespearean tragedy nor a fairy-tale fantasy, the poignant power of this royal story comes from its extraordinary ordinariness.
WHAT "The Audience"
WHERE Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 W. 45th St.
INFO $65-$150; 212-239-6200, theaudiencebroadway.com
BOTTOM LINE Dazzling Helen Mirren makes the unknowable queen knowable.