NEW YORK—John Lithgow assumes the title role in the Public Theater’s production of William Shakespeare’s King Lear in Central Park, and while he does do justice to it at times, the show often feels off-balance and disjointed.
Lear, the aging King of England, has decided to relinquish his throne and divide his kingdom into thirds, each going to one of his daughters. Before doing so, he asks each of them to proclaim how much they love him. His two eldest, Goneril (Annette Bening) and Regan (Jessica Hecht), happily flatter him.
The youngest daughter, Cordelia (Jessica Collins), however, will only say she loves him as a daughter loves a father, no more or less. Enraged, Lear disinherits her and orders her banishment. When Lear’s loyal friend, the Earl of Kent (Jay O. Sanders), tries to intercede on Cordelia’s behalf, he too is banished.
Lear, who intends to retain the title and privileges due a king, goes off to live with Goneril and Regan, planning to stay with each for alternating months. However, his daughters quickly tire of this arrangement, refusing to take him in unless he starts to act in deference to them and their wishes.
These demands include divesting Lear of most of the 100 knights he retained after giving up his crown. Lear refuses—the shock of being so suddenly reduced in status causing his mind to buckle.
In short order, Lear’s few remaining companions become his Fool (Steven Boyer); Kent, who has returned to Lear’s side disguised as a servant; and the Earl of Gloucester (Clarke Peters).
Gloucester has his own family problems. His bastard son, Edmund (Eric Sheffer Stevens), furious at being continually treated as a second citizen, is conspiring to brand his brother, Edgar (Chukwudi Iwuji), the Duke’s legitimate heir, a traitor, thus putting himself next in the line of succession.
King Lear is a classic tale of generational defiance. A father tries to retain the authority he’s long become accustomed to, while his children tire of continually being expected to do his bidding.
For the play to really hit home, the show’s elements of drama, intrigue, and humor—and there are large portions of each—need to be played with a careful balance, which is not the case here.
This lopsidedness is particularly true in Lithgow’s performance. Too many instances of whimsy creep into what should be his most pathos-laden moments as madness takes its toll on his already strained mind.
Neither Bening nor Hecht help matters with mostly one-dimensional performances as Goneril and Regan.
More serious is the complete lack of sexual chemistry between them and Edmund. The rivalry between the two over Edmund as he attempts to use them in his own rise to power is a key plot point.
Most telling of all is that the plot involving Gloucester and his sons quickly becomes more interesting than that concerning Lear.
These problems must all be laid at the feet of director Daniel Sullivan, who is unable to make the talented cast rise to the material available.
Lithgow does have some strong moments as Lear, a man expecting things to go on as they always have, even when he forfeits the power to make it so. One high point occurs when Lear meets Edgar, who is disguised as a beggar in an effort to escape Edmund’s treachery. The sight of Edgar causes Lear to inquire if the man had any daughters who brought about this situation.
Peters is very good as Gloucester, though like Lear, Gloucester does not see the discontent in his own family until too late.
Sanders turns in a strong performance as Kent, a man determined to protect Lear in spite of himself. Sanders also imbues Kent with a bit of resigned humor when necessary.
Stevens is sinister as the always scheming Edmund, though the aforementioned problems in his scenes with Bening and Hecht blunt the effectiveness of the character at key points.
Iwuji is compelling as Edgar, an initially unassuming fellow forced to change his very lifestyle in order to survive, but eventually becoming stronger for it.
Christopher Innvar and Glenn Fleshler are okay as Goneril and Regan’s husbands, though only Innvar’s character exhibits any signs of a personality.
Collins is effective as Cordelia in the few scenes in which she appears, and Steven Boyer does an excellent job as Lear’s Fool, the one person who can point out Lear’s folly of giving up his throne without fear of reprisal.
John Lee Beatty’s set is okay if a trifle bland. Costumes by Susan Hilferty work well, and lighting by Jeff Croiter and sound design by Acme Sound Partners are strong.
Fight direction by Rick Sordelet is well played, particularly in the final showdown between Edmund and Edgar.
A good effort, but the various weaknesses throughout cause this production of “King Lear” to fall far short of the mark.
Also in the cast are Slate Holmgren, Ryan-James Hatanaka, Jeremy Bobb, Dale Place, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Andrew Burnap, Tristan Farmer, Christopher Ghaffari, Matt Helm, Kevis Hillocks, Joseph Hoover, Dave Klasko, Ara Morton, Phillip Shinn, and Shane Zeigler.
Delacorte Theater in Central Park
79th St. and Fifth Ave.
Information: 212-539-8500 or visit publictheater.org
Running Time: 3 hours, 10 min.
Closes: Aug. 17
Judd Hollander is the New York correspondent for the London publication The Stage.