'King Lear': Theater Review

King Lear Production Still - H 2014
Joan Marcus

King Lear Production Still - H 2014

New York City theatergoers will be experiencing Lear fatigue after seeing this uninspired production starring a bellowing Lithgow.

John Lithgow plays the mad monarch in this free Central Park production of Shakespeare's classic tragedy, which also features Annette Bening.

Even the most passionate Shakespeare lovers among NYC theatergoers, not to mention critics, should be forgiven if they’re experiencing King Lear fatigue. The current Shakespeare in the Park production starring John Lithgow is the third major one in seven months, not counting the NT Live broadcast of the National Theatre’s version with Simon Russell Beale. And that’s following the acclaimed productions starring Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi in recent years. It’s beginning to look like the current glut is not so much about the modern relevance of Shakespeare’s tragedy but about aging actors wanting to strut their stuff in the play’s daunting lead role.

That certainly seems to be the case with this production directed by Daniel Sullivan. Devoid of interpretive insight and lacking emotional immediacy, it comes across as a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing.  

Lithgow is a superb, experienced stage actor with two Tony Awards to his credit, and Annette Bening, who plays the treacherous Goneril, returns to the New York City stage after decades. But Lithgow here never plumbs the depth of the tortured Lear, staying stubbornly on the surface. His performance is feverishly pitched from beginning to end, lacking the subtle alterations necessary to make the character’s progression from vain self-righteousness to madness to pathos sympathetic. We simply feel nothing for his Lear, despite the impressive physicality he exhibits and the anguished howls he emits upon Cordelia’s death, which sound like they’re from an animal escaped from the Central Park Zoo.

Bening, Jessica Hecht and Jessica Collins are similarly ineffective as the three daughters who don’t seem as if they could possibly be related. The former barely makes an impression, other than the fact that we’re seeing a movie star onstage, and her inexpressive line readings and stiff physicality convey no so much venality as severe discomfort. Hecht’s Regan is distinguished mainly by her eccentric mannerisms and nasal vocal delivery, while Collins actually manages the difficult feat of making Cordelia not so much sympathetic as bland.

It’s enough to make me understand why, after seeing the show, NPR’s Ira Glass tweeted: “Shakespeare sucks…no stakes, not relatable.”

Fortunately, the supporting cast delivers several sterling performances. Steven Boyer’s Fool is perhaps the best I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen many). At once amusing and moving, he makes the character’s relationship with the aged monarch seem more tender and caring than ever before, and his emotional scenes with Lithgow are the evening’s highlights. The ever-reliable Jay O. Sanders is a particularly stalwart Kent, and Clarke Peters (The Wire) makes Gloucester’s travails — contrary to Glass's tweet — eminently relatable. Eric Sheffer Stevens and Chukwudi Iwuji fare less well as the villainous Edmund and the loyal Edgar, although, to be fair, they’re hampered by their characters’ inconsistencies.

The staging by Sullivan, a normally fine Shakespearean director (witness his lauded productions of The Merchant of Venice and The Comedy of Errors in the same outdoor venue) fails to galvanize, and the evening moves sluggishly despite a judicious cutting of the play. Even the normally startling scene of Gloucester’s blinding delivers a weak punch, while intense moments such as the storm scene lack vividness. Even the work of set designer John Lee Beatty conspires to dilute the evening’s power by erecting a massive wall that cuts off the views that usually contribute so much to the overall atmosphere of Shakespeare in the Park. And really, isn’t it possible to present works by the Bard without the now clichéd ritualistic bursts of percussion?

“Things that love night, love not such nights as these,” says Kent at one point in the play. The same could well be said of this dutiful but uninspired production, which never scales the heights of Shakespeare’s timeless tragedy.

Cast: John Lithgow, Annette Bening, Jessica Collins, Jessica Hecht, Jeremy Bobb, Steven Boyer, Glenn Fleshler, Slate Holmgren, Christopher Invar, Chukwudi Iwuji, Clarke Peters, Dale Place, Jay O. Sanders, Eric Sheffer Stevens

Playwright: William Shakespeare

Director: Daniel Sullivan

Set designer: John Lee Beatty

Costume designer: Susan Hilferty

Lighting designer: Jeff Croiter

Sound designer: Acme Sound Partners

Music: Dan Moses Schreier

Presented by the Public Theater Shakespeare in the Park