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stage dive

Theater Reviews: Alan Cumming Talks to Himself; Tom Murphy Speaks to Us

Alan Cumming in 'Macbeth.'

Macbeth’s “vaulting ambition” famously parts him from human society; Alan Cumming’s parts him from his clothes. Thus, two famously eccentric Caledonians merge in the National Theatre of Scotland’s (literally) stripped-down Macbeth, directed by John Tiffany (Black Watch, Once) and Andrew Goldberg, with now-goaty, now-gliding movement choreographed by Christine Devaney, an imposing mid-century mental-institution set constructed  by Merle Hensel, and (almost) all parts performed by Cumming, whose hobgoblin DNA has made him a reliable imp in all media since his star turn in Sam Mendes’s Cabaret. Here, he executes a highly impressive performance that never stops trying to impress — and thus never ceases to be anything more than a performance. For all his half-puckish, half-thuggish antics and perfectly flexed physical storytelling, this bloody Thane never threatens to o’erleap himself ... or the proscenium line. He’s the very definition of mad-in-craft, safely contained behind a Plexiglas of dramaturgy and (even in his birthday suit) lushly robed in actorly self-regard. We watch with deep interest, with great admiration, but not with much concern.

We begin with a man (Cumming) being processed into a generically terrifying institution by two intermittently glimpsed white-coat attendants (Myra McFadyen and Ali Craig). His fine street clothes — including, ominously, a torn, bloody shirt — are removed; he’s helped into a hospital gown and then into a cot. He doesn’t stay there long. Mounted high on the forbidding tiled walls are three corvine security cameras, which hiss and complain and give us three witch’s-eye views of our patient, who quickly begins to chatter out the text of Macbeth. He is the Thane of Cawdor, wry, doomed Banquo, the Weird Sisters, a wonderfully drippy King Duncan, raging MacDuff, runaway Malcolm — and, of course, the Great Lady of the house. (One of Cumming’s more bravura moments is an early dialogue between Lord and Lady Macbeth, accomplished with nothing but a repositioned bath-towel.) McFadyen and Craig occasionally hover behind a glassed-off observation gallery above and, even less occasionally, interact with their subject, but the show is, for the most part, a kaleidoscope of Cumming. (The redacted text, incredibly, never feels skimpy: A tremendous amount of the play has been preserved in this brief show.) Yet I, for one, felt stranded in a neutral zone between the original plot and the booby-hatch shell: Neither text nor dramaturgy felt terribly urgent or immediate to me. I was very aware of myself as an audience member, watching an actor talking to himself. Skillfully. But still, talking to himself. There’s a deliberateness to the whole operation that prevents true immersion — even when Cumming is (with some clever stage trickery) drowning himself.

For a real sensation of drowning, try DruidMurphy, a marathon of plays by Tom Murphy — a contemporary of Brian Friel's, unreasonably unknown in the States. The Druid Theatre, a ferociously talented Irish outfit, is performing three harrowing works: Conversations on a Homecoming, A Whistle in the Dark, and Famine. (No need for this to be an endurance exercise: They can be watched separately, though I’d recommend the full dose for anyone with the time and stamina.) The unanswered question in all of these plays isn’t the familiar American can we go home again? but the more metaphysically misty what is home? what was it? and was it ever even home?

Conversations, my favorite, is a tense and riveting barroom talker about an emigrant actor (Marty Rea) come back to the old sod for a dram of nostalgia and finding himself rebuffed by his old pubmates, whose small-town stasis has bequeathed them some bitter insights on the ideals of their youth. Aaron Monaghan — whose rattling-great title turn in Druid’s 2008 production of The Cripple of Inishmaan still has New York audiences buzzing — returns as a schmuck with money in Conversations, then turns volatile thug in A Whistle in the Dark, Murphy’s first right-cross across the jaw of the theater establishment. (A brutal portrait of an Irish immigrant family in fifties England, the play was rejected by the Abbey in 1961, then celebrated in England as a bit of admonitory minstrelsy on the inherent violence and primitivism of the Irish character.) It’s said that Whistle was a model for Pinter’s The Homecoming; it was certainly a model for the bare-knuckled young Irish playwrights of today, most notably Conor McPherson and Martin McDonagh. Niall Buggy sinks his redoubtable choppers into Dada, the kind of paper patriarch we absolutely love to hate: a grandiose fraud who loves to egg on a fight — as long as it’s his four sons, not he himself, doing the fighting. Murphy was swinging for the fences in ’61, and today, the play feels broad, its brutality faintly telegraphed — but it’s never boring, not in the hard hands of these performers. As the sole woman in a houseful of increasingly dangerous men, Eileen Walsh is a wavering flame of hope and reason, but never a mere tribune of civility. (Walsh and Murphy are far too skillful for that.) Civility gradually dissolves entirely in Famine, Murphy’s anti-lyrical plummet into the nineteenth-century ecological and social blight that depopulated Erin, with millions starved and millions more coercively repatriated. Famine, stylistically and structurally divergent from the other plays, is, for many reasons, the hardest to watch — not least of which is its vastly ambitious scale, stretching from peasant hovels to the halls of power. All of these funny, frightening, furious stories are staged with minimal fuss and maximum punch by Garry Hynes (Tony Award–winning director of The Beauty Queen of Leenane), Druid’s extraordinary helmswoman, an iron hand in a velvet glove if ever there was one. She’s full of human kindness — some of which, in fact, hits a wall with terrifying force — yet she’s never infirm of purpose. And the devils at her command aren’t painted. They’re all too real.  

Macbeth is playing July 10 through 14 at Lincoln Center's Rose Theater.

DruidMurphy, with all three plays in a marathon, is playing at the Gerald W. Lynch Theatre at John Jay College on July 14.

Photo: Lincoln Center