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The Public Theater’s King Lear, Starring John Lithgow, Is Commendable But Vague

On a recent evening at the Delacorte in Central Park, a raccoon stopped by unticketed to watch a moment of the Public Theater’s new production of King Lear, starring John Lithgow. Following some other supernumeraries onto the outskirts of the stage, where it kept a respectful distance from the main action, the odd creature seemed briefly stunned by the doings of the other odd creatures. This was the early scene in which the elderly Lear awards portions of his kingdom to the winners of a kind of spontaneous poetry slam among his three daughters. After the older two, Goneril and Regan, played by Annette Bening and Jessica Hecht, offer slick words of fealty, and the youngest, Cordelia, played by Jessica Collins, remains mute because her love is “richer than her tongue,” the raccoon took off as Lear exploded in rage, Cordelia in tears. This is one of many Lear moments that manage to be both supremely moving and completely mystifying. What is the point of Lear’s idle contest? Why does Cordelia fail to explain herself better? Who cannot recognize the brazen falseness of the two entitled nasties? Perhaps I’m projecting, but I thought the raccoon was saying “Whaaaaat?” as it went.

The Public has presented six Lears since its founding: three at the downtown mothership (with F. Murray Abraham, Kevin Kline, and Sam Waterston) and three in the park (with Frank Silvera, James Earl Jones, and now, after a hiatus of 41 years, Lithgow). That seems like both a little and a lot. It’s a little for a title that some consider the crown of the canon, the most psychologically complex and politically resonant of the late tragedies. (“This play moves me like no other,” Oskar Eustis, the Public’s artistic director, writes in the current production’s Playbill. “I quote it more than any other.”) Yet it’s a lot considering its inherent difficulties. The central role is a killer — Lithgow has compared it to the Bataan Death March — even if the actor playing him is usually younger than the specified “fourscore and upward.” (The “average” Lear at the Public has been 57; Lithgow is 68.) It’s also one of the longest tragedies, even when judiciously cut, as it is here, to three and a quarter hours. And the exigencies of the contemporary theater mean there is never enough time to rehearse. Five weeks is barely enough to hammer the relationships into rude alignment, to get the language flowing clear, let alone to address the play’s many opaque conventions and bewildering contradictions, its chaos and violence and almost spectral depths.

So it is no surprise that this Lear, at least during its final week of previews, proved commendable but vague, powerful but stolid: a statue not fully liberated from the stone. Perhaps time will improve it.

Meanwhile, if Daniel Sullivan’s production leaves too many questions unanswered, it still has plenty of strengths. Lithgow gives an intelligent, always beautifully spoken performance, especially touching in its pathos as Lear begins to suspect his creeping madness and in his Act IV reconciliation with Cordelia. His curses (and they are many) are full-furious. There may not be a great deal of variety or modulation between the high points but all are hit squarely. Likewise, the action is staged very plainly on a large log platform in front of a drab wall representing, with its needled texture, both woods and weapons. (The sets are by John Lee Beatty.) Despite or because of the minimal furniture and props, many scenes are almost sculptural in their impact, as when the three daughters ring their father like planets — or vultures.

And the daughters are, for once, clearly differentiated, not just drawing the easy contrast between good and evil but the harder one between varieties of evil. Hecht makes the big and startling choice to play Regan as a vapid, alcoholic Real Housewife of Olde England, with ditzy top notes and violent rage underneath. Bening as her older sister is more straight-ahead, even-keeled, and mercenary; she is trying to manage her way through the succession crisis while having to keep her crazy sister on point. (Bening is very good at disdain.) Susan Hilferty’s elegant costumes help illustrate this: Goneril looks regal in her gowns, Hecht like an arriviste.

But not all of the supporting roles are as sharply conceived, let alone carried out, and even apart from that, the production never manages to resolve the questions Shakespeare fails to answer (or even, sometimes, address). Chief among these is a central paradox of King Lear: For such a psychological play, why are the characters so dim about psychology? How is it they never see coming what even that raccoon could probably see? Goneril and Regan are obviously in cahoots right from the start to dispose of a father who has waited too long to hand over the keys, but other than this brief exchange —

KING LEAR: I gave you all —
REGAN: And in good time you gave it.

— no credible foundation for their fury is mentioned, let alone dramatized. Furthermore, as played here, the two are so obviously oily that Lear’s failure to discern their hostility can only make sense if we understand him to be senile or congenitally unaware. But nothing in Lithgow’s performance at the beginning of the play suggests the former; he bounds onstage, a picture of ruddy good health and sound wits. As for the latter, Shakespeare does give hints:

REGAN: ’Tis the infirmity of his age: yet he hath ever but slenderly known himself.
GONERIL: The best and soundest of his time hath been but rash; then must we look to receive from his age, not alone the imperfections of long-engraffed condition, but therewithal the unruly waywardness that infirm and choleric years bring with them.

But Goneril’s line, helpful if hard to parse, was cut.

Lacking clear motivation, the two sisters’ evil (like Cordelia’s goodness) feels merely atmospheric: They neither own nor disown it. This is a problem throughout. Gloucester’s bastard son, Edmund, who parallels the main action by scheming to rob his brother, Edgar, of his legitimate inheritance, is not sly or ingratiating but just frankly unpleasant; falseness evident to us should surely be evident to his kin. And Lear’s Fool (Steven Boyer) is entirely inside out, playing his subtext so broadly and grimly he’d have had his bells cut off years ago. By the time you factor in the non-disguise disguises (Edgar paints on some mud to pass as Poor Tom; Kent becomes Caius just by wearing a hat), you’ve got a Lear that puts too many roadblocks in the way of our understanding what kind of play it is.

Or you could say it’s a production that doesn’t yet have its skin on. Unlike Sullivan’s other Shakespearean stagings — especially his excellent Delacorte Merchant of Venice, with Al Pacino, four summers ago — it almost entirely lacks the lively small gestures that texturize a play’s surface. I can remember just one: After Edmund, as part of his scheme, wounds himself, Regan bestows on him the scarf from her neck, to bind his wound but also to signal her sexual interest. The general lack of such details leaves the text stuck in “iconic” mode, an impression supported by the frequent ritualistic clapping and banging of thunder-sheets. I suppose this is meant to be elemental, but the best part of Lear is psychological. And when that is not fully engaged, the endless anger and madness and violence get tiresome. They wear you down, and not in the good way.

And yet Lithgow’s performance did grow on me, even in the course of one evening; perhaps this is less a psychological play than a play about the emergence of psychology. Lear comes to understand that humans besides himself have insides, and that everybody hurts. In that perception we may see the roots of modern drama, or we might if the production were given enough time to settle. That raccoon should come back later in the run. 

King Lear is at the Delacorte Theatre through August 17.

Photo: Joan Marcus