Three Plays Just In From London
I wish I could fathom the obsession some American theater types have with all things British. Granted, our culture, theater included, came from England initially. But surely we've achieved enough in the past 300 years—and shipped enough of it back to the motherland—to stand on our own two feet artistically. But no, for some incorrigibles, everything has to come from England. British productions, British directors, and British stars invariably arrive here in a shower of ecstatic hoopla that has relatively little to do with the quality or the significance of the work involved; the gushing reception often perplexes our Britannic visitors—who know the goods and bads of their own country's work perfectly well—every bit as much as it does me.
Britain's theater has things we lack over here, but actors, directors, playwrights, and productions of quality aren't among them; if we put our minds to it, we'd have enough of those to stock 100 National Theatres. What we're missing is threefold: institutions with the National's sense of stature and scope (we have a few, but not in New York); a government sufficiently committed to arts subsidy to make such institutions secure; and, most of all, a general belief in the theater's relevance to the overall culture. In effect, we lack faith in ourselves. England, where theater has always been a part of life and a proud cultural product, has often fallen short in this or that artistic department, but its faith in the idea that the theater means something to the nation's life has never waned. One reason that America, and New York in particular, vests its theatrical faith in England is that the English willingness to praise and publicize homegrown talent makes any London show seem a natural magnet for the only two things in which most Americans truly believe—money and celebrity. In England, a stage actor can become famous, possibly even by playing Shakespeare; an American needs at least a sitcom.
Sometimes the English willingness to support English work on principle can be puzzling to those less generously minded. Rupert Goold's Chichester Festival production of Macbeth, currently at BAM, apparently garnered ecstatic reviews and awards in London. It got them, I suppose, by its sheer insistent showiness, since the ragbag of gimmicky notions it offers couldn't be further from a sustained interpretation of Shakespeare's grim and famously terse play. The germ of a good if familiar idea lies behind Goold's staging—he brings the story into the mid-20th-century, where memories of Nazi and Soviet totalitarianism echo Macbeth's tactics—but he fritters away the idea's possibilities by tossing in one pointlessly outré trick after another. This production literally contains everything and the kitchen sink: The single set suggests the servants' hall of some old mansion; besides the sink, it's equipped with a musty freight elevator, used alternately for human and supernatural transit, and—despite the vaguely post–World War I costuming—with a giant modern refrigerator and a small portable TV as well.
Intermittently blizzarding the action with projected film of marching men, cheering crowds, and whatnot, Goold also pads it out with meaningless repetitions and parlor-game stunts, stretching this shortest of Shakespeare's tragedies to a three-hour running time. He litters the stage with scattershot cultural allusions: Lady Macbeth's banquet dress copies Sargent's Madame X; Banquo gets murdered on a Hitchcockian 1930s train (though the lines about his horses are retained). The tone suggests the current spoof version of The 39 Steps, bloated with multimedia and blank verse.
Naturally, this does little to focus or inspire the acting, with results as random and slapdash in style as Goold's production choices. A decentish Malcolm (Scott Handy), an interesting conception of Ross (Tim Treloar) as a noncombatant bureaucrat, and a passably gritty Macduff (Michael Feast) do little to compensate for a cast in which half the players constantly lapse into overwrought old-style hamming—the Lady Macbeth, Kate Fleetwood, is the worst offender—and the other half steadily sink into a mire of earnest, slo-mo speech. Shakespeare's text offers many opportunities for a juicy six-count pause, but the space between the words "Light thickens" surely isn't one of them. Patrick Stewart, playing guardedly and quietly in an apparent effort to uphold some truth against the surrounding clamor, rises to a few strong moments but as quickly relapses, turning the desperate, heroically defiant Macbeth of the final scenes into a tired, beaten cur.
Sam Buntrock's London revival of Sondheim's Sunday in the Park With George, restaged here for the Roundabout with its English stars, is a far stronger and more intelligent production, though still unsatisfying. Adding the reduced orchestration to the Roundabout's usual cheesy sound design gives this lush, complex score the threadbare, tinny ring of a community-theater pit. Nor does the ensemble singing measure up to the sumptuous first-act finale, one of Sondheim's truly sublime achievements. Buntrock's designers have given the show a dry, metallic look that fits his cool, reserved approach. Those, like me, who remember book writer James Lapine's original 1984 production fondly will sense an air of depletion about the revival. Even with artists as appealing as Jessica Molaskey and Mary Beth Peil onstage, the new cast lacks the original's luster. Daniel Evans is an effective but unfiery George, Jenna Russell an efficient, unfetching Dot/Marie, marring the latter role with an annoying Maude Fricker accent. The company's one genuine improvement on the original is Michael Cumpsty, as George's smug arch-rival, his hauteur perfectly matching the handlebar mustache that turns him into one of John Held Jr.'s spoof-Victorian woodcuts.
Paradoxically, the chill Buntrock pro-jects onto Sunday in the Park strengthens rather than diminishes the effect of this notoriously problematic work. The show's fixation on the knotty pathways of the creative process, realized by Sondheim with pinpoint brilliance, will always resonate with a diehard core of fans, but puts off wider audiences. The cold aura of Buntrock's production, echoing the cold reception the world usually gives creativity, ultimately produces tears where the fervent warmth of Lapine's original drew blank stares.
Fervency draws only numbness at Mick Gordon and AC Grayling's Grace, a parable of faith versus reason so abstractly drawn, and so slackly dramatized, that even a theologian would have trouble explaining what Manhattan Class Company saw in this script, other than its British cachet. Director Joseph Hardy tries to cover for the barren text by having his actors barrel through it with maximum fervor. The commanding Lynn Redgrave, as the rationalist who resents her son's newfound religiosity, convincingly grounds her barreling in a genuine sense of pain; the others, except for Philip Goodwin as Redgrave's self-effacing husband, merely shout across the script's void. Bernard Shaw's Too True to Be Good (Project Shaw's February reading) demonstrates that, in earlier days, at least one London playwright could find dramatically gripping words for an atheist parent and a clergyman son to exchange.
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