October 11, 2008

A Blustery "Man for All Seasons"

People like me are always mouthing off about how we’d be happy to see our favorite actors onstage even if they were doing no more than reading the phone book. Well, it may be put up or shut up time for me.

Frank Langella is one of my very favorite actors. I’m a fool for his commanding stage presence, mellifluous voice and total commitment to character. A Man for All Seasons, Robert Bolt’s play about Sir Thomas More, the 16th century English noble who was beheaded for refusing to accept Henry VIII’s divorce from his first wife and marriage to his second, is hardly a phone book. In fact, it was a Tony Award winning-play and the Oscar-winning film version is one of my all-time faves. Still, there is a by-the-numbers quality about the Roundabout Theatre’s current revival of A Man for All Seasons that opened at the American Airlines Theatre earlier this month. And even the great Langella had a tough time making it come alive for me.

And it isn’t because I don’t appreciate the subject matter or think it’s dated. In fact, I’m one of those folks who can’t seem to get enough of the the lives of Henry VIII, his wives and his heirs. Since the beginning of the year, I’ve seen the movie “The Other Boleyn Girl”, looked at “The Tudors” series on Showtime, read three novels by Phillipa Gregory, the queen of literature set in the 16th century, and rented DVDs of the PBS mini-series “Elizabeth I” with Helen Mirren and the 1996 Oscar-winning version of “A Man for All Seasons” with the late Paul Scofield, reprising his role from the original stage version. And it's always the right time for a play about a man who will stand up for his beliefs.

But the play that we’re now seeing isn’t the same one that so intrigued theatergoers back in the 1960s when A Man for All Seasons ran for 637 performances. That version included a character called The Common Man, who spoke directly to the audience and served as a narrator and commentator on the play. Doug Hughes, director of the current production, persuaded the Bolt estate to allow him to drop that character because, he has said, he feels that Brechtian conceit has become too commonplace. And perhaps he also thought it would confuse people who had seen the movie, which also leaves out the character. But movies and plays are different species and although I didn’t see the original stage version, I suspect what The Common Man added was a theatricality that this production lacks.

It also lacks a truly supporting cast. The play is all about More and the battle between the demands of his conscience as a Catholic and the loyalty he is called upon to show his liege who breaks with the church. But there are other strong characters in the play, including Richard Rich, the ambitious acolyte who betrays More; Thomas Cromwell, the crafty cleric who becomes More’s chief foe and, of course, the king. A great hero needs a worthy nemesis. Scofield, who won great acclaim as More in the original production, had one in his Cromwell, played by Leo McKern, the talented character actor perhaps best known as Rumpole of the Bailey.

Zach Grenier, who plays Cromwell in the current production is a good actor but he’s not in Langella’s league. Nor is Jeremy Strong’s Rich. That throws the production out of balance and Langella seems like Gulliver in the land of Lilliputians, at times almost hammy by comparison with his co-stars.

Only Patrick Page as King Henry measures up. Page’s past credits include playing the Grinch in How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Scar in The Lion King and Lumiere in Beauty and the Beast (click here to read a New York Times profile about him). Maybe he’s just happy to be playing a human again but his Henry is a real person—charming one moment, chilling the next and Page brings a vitality to his one scene with More that made me sit up in my chair and stop shivering (the air conditioning in the American Airlines Theatre always seems frozen at full blast; take a heavy jacket if you go) and when he left the stage I wanted to go with him.

So, was I happy to see Langella under these circumstances? Yes and no. Yes because I’m always glad to see him and he still manages flashes of brilliance. No because even the finest gem needs a good setting to show it off to true effect.


Joseph Gomez said...

Nice to hear someone be honest about their favorite actors.

jan@broadwayandme said...

Joseph, this was a tough one for me so particuluar thanks for the supportive comment. Albest, jan