Exit Lines: “King Lear”

Written by Exit Lines, Theatre

John Lithgow reigns in Central Park.

Here in New York we’re in the middle of what’s called the “Off” season–that is, the Off Broadway season, full of festivals and other theatrical diversions now that Tony season is well over. Broadway still offers a show or two, but it’s a foolhardy proposition as ticket buyers clamor for the established hits and the newly minted award winners. Case in point: The show that opened the 2014-2015 Broadway season, Holler If Ya Hear Me, was the first show to close after a few lackluster weeks at the Palace, a barn of a venue that was pointlessly reconfigured to bring us closer to a dreary jukebox musical, based on Tupac Shakur songs, that wasn’t going to woo the bread-and-butter tourist audiences keeping the old faithfuls alive. (It was essentially the evil twin of the saccharine, successful In the Heights.) Musicals that didn’t measure up from last season, like Rocky and Bullets Over Broadway, are on their last legs in the dog days. too. (While the wretched If/Then, substantially worse than any of them, keeps chugging along, thanks to the sheer drawing power of Idina Menzel, part of that rare breed, the theatre star.)

Off Broadway, the stalwart Cherry Jones ends a run this weekend at Manhattan Theatre Club in When We Were Young and Unafraid, by Sarah Treem, most noted for the HBO shows In Treatment and How to Make it in America. Propelled by narrative twists and turns the play, set in a safe haven for abused women off coastal Seattle in the pre-Roe vs. Wade era, could fit snugly on the channel. Agnes (Jones, projecting a stolid warmth) challenges one of her boarders, Mary Anne (a finely frazzled Zoe Kazan, returned to her OB roots), when the refugee, on the run from her soldier husband following an abortion, becomes a bad influence over her bookish daughter, Penny (Morgan Saylor). That should be enough conflict for the show, which then throws an unlikely character, the black militant lesbian Hannah (Cherise Booth), into the mix to expose the wary Agnes’ secrets. Though Booth’s strident portrayal predictably smooths into something more palatable, that tangent unbalances the production, which is no less than watchable. But no more than that, either. Saylor, from Homeland, hits the most honest notes as the confused teenager.

EL 1The big event, at least for the next nine nights, is John Lithgow in King Lear, outdoors at the Public’s Delacorte Theater in Central Park. That is, if you didn’t see it with Frank Langella or Michael Pennington last season, or Kevin Kline or Sam Waterston recently. New York is lousy with Lears, and as actors of a certain age itch to do it we’ll see more, and soon. Or you will, as I pace myself; Christopher Plummer, in  a barebones Canadian production ten years ago, and Ian McKellen, exported to Brooklyn from London in 2007, tided me over until now. As tragedies go Lear can be a hard sit; there is magnificent material there, to be sure. Not for nothing is Lear one of the great parts. Yet there’s a lot of bogginess, too, with subplots and digressions, something that doesn’t afflict, say, Macbeth or most versions of Hamlet. (It’s nice that Kenneth Branagh filmed the whole of Hamlet over four hours, but I’m not alone in hoping that we’ll never see all that again onstage.)

Ideally, someone will take the story of King Lear and his troublesome daughters, trim the repetitive fat, and compare and contrast it more closely with the story of the unfortunate Gloucester and his sons. Maybe it has been done. So far as I know, director Daniel Sullivan hasn’t done it here; the show ran three hours and twenty minutes, longer than my other two Lears, and I felt it, if not as acutely as Ira Glass. Not that there weren’t compensations. It was a lovely night, and the weather, which chased me away from Much Ado About Nothing in June, is expected to hold for the remainder of the run; John Lee Beatty’s simple, sylvan/metallic set soaks up Jeff Croiter’s lighting and Tal Yarden’s projections in visually striking ways as darkness falls; and, of course, it’s free, for everybody.

Mostly, there is Lithgow, who at 68 continues to bring a childlike glee to every part, even (especially) his psychos. Lear gives an actor a chance to do everything, and the actor pulls out all the stops, while keeping the performance human-scaled. He’s believably hurt, wounded, and sorrowful throughout his great descent, and kicks up quite the ruckus out there on the storm-tossed heath. Nor is he entirely alone out there; Steven Boyer’s Fool, dwarfed by Lithgow, complements him ably, as does Jay O. Sanders’ Kent (not his fault that the role comes of little). Jessica Collins’ Cordelia is the picture of fragile innocence, violated. Clarke Peters is touching as the lamentable Gloucester, recipient of one of the harshest punishments meted out in all of Shakespeare, and Eric Sheffer Stevens brings an amused quality to Edmund. Regrettably, the two women under his sway, the always mannered, Sandy Dennis-like Jessica Hecht as Regan and Annette Bening as the grasping Goneril, fail to compel. This is Bening’s first appearance on a New York stage since Hollywood swept her up after her Tony-nominated performance in 1987’s Coastal Disturbances, and I trust we’ll see her again, giving a fuller performance in a less brittle part, that brittleness coming too easily to her.

So, a mixed bag, this Lear, the first Shakespeare in the Park has done since 1973. But the right actor, at least, ripened for it over the years. “I walk to work, and crawl home,” Lithgow says. The journey’s worth it.