"Salonika," the first U.S. production of a play by 30-year-old Englishwoman Louise Page, currently at the Public Theater, begins with a five-minute scene that is nothing short of a masterwork of surrealism:
On a twinkling white Grecian beach, the sand washed smooth and powdery by a recent tide, lies Maxwell Caulfield face down and as naked as "the day he was born," as Charlotte, played by Jessica Tandy, later remarks to her unmarried daughter Enid (Elizabeth Wilson).
For the first 20 minutes, however, no one speaks a word. Tandy plays an 84-year-old Englishwoman in Greece to visit the grave of her husband, a World War I casualty of 64 years earlier. She examines a perfect apple peel she has unwound in one piece, takes healthy bites from the fruit and glances contentedly at the seaside horizon as Caulfield sunbathes on one corner of the stage.
When Charlotte takes notice of the nude Caulfield, she drops both her apple and her jaw and, in what seems like a slow-motion film, encircles the nude and reels back 64 years of widowhood. Nearby, the ghost of her dead husband emerges from the sand in full doughboy get-up.
There is no need to go on. After a scene like the first one the rest is bound to be a letdown, as unfortunately is true. But for 20 minutes of prime theater, not to mention some good acting once the speaking begins, "Salonika" is one of the finest off-Broadway productions this season (Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St.).