With his handsome, chiseled profile framed by long, snowy white locks and a full Old Testament-white beard, Kevin Kline, made up as Lear, looks astonishingly like George Bernard Shaw—or, more precisely, like the John Farleigh woodcuts of GBS that illustrate various Shaw editions of the 1920s and ’30s. This is fine for the imagination—it sets you thinking what a splendid Captain Shotover or King Magnus Kline would make—but not so fine for King Lear. Shakespeare’s deep, dark, and violent play, which seems closer to the reality of our own time than almost any other play of his, demands a fury that simply isn’t a part of Kline’s emotional makeup. This isn’t a question of rant: An articulate, nervily acute actor with a big, well-trained voice that can pump up plenty of volume when required, Kline can roar, and often finds telling moments at which to do so. But you never feel him raging, against either his cruel daughters or the unjust universe, and Lear’s potential for rage is something an audience should sense even in his quietest and most tender moments. Understanding the text thoroughly, Kline notches up many striking points on his mild journey through the tragedy, but Lear, the terrifying, babyish, impossible, regally demanding man at its center, is nowhere to be seen. The “ hysterica passio” that Lear struggles to master before his mind gives way, comes off here as a potential danger of which Lear takes note rather than experiences, and you wonder how such a careful observer could have “ta’en too little care” of anything in his realm.
The question comes into high relief because James Lapine’s production seems to view Lear’s problem as a matter of bad luck in child-rearing rather than self-understanding. Before the house lights go down, we see three little girls competing to paint colors on a large map which, when the play begins, becomes the one on which Lear divvies up his kingdom; the little girls periodically reappear, sometimes behind their grown-up editions, at his madder moments. It’s impossible not to equate them with the three weird sisters who plague the hero of that other Shakespeare play about Scotland, especially as the three actresses who play their adult versions overact with witchlike awfulness. Given a hero off in Shaw country, and his daughters whooping it up in the Scottish play, the secondary characters are left to save the occasion, and they often come through bravely. Lapine, expectably, helps them by laying out each scene with lucidity and visual clarity, never oversimplifying or over-interpreting. (Though there are some odd textual tweaks: Why “as flies to wanton children“—is the word “boys” now automatically sexist?) Larry Bryggman makes a wonderful Gloucester, strong and just a touch foolhardy in the early scenes, movingly helpless in the later ones, ably partnered by Brian Avers’s jumpy, catlike Edgar. Michael Cerveris’s bluff, coarsely compassionate Kent, Michael Rudko’s stern soured idealist of an Albany, and Timothy D. Stickney’s creepy-cagey Oswald all strengthen the evening; even Logan Marshall-Green, who invests Edmund’s soliloquies with annoying showbiz overstatement, becomes moving and real in scenes with others.
Lear wrecks many lives by giving away his kingdom, but everything that follows this one heedless act makes sense in context. The puzzle of Patrick Marber’s oddly bifurcated new play, Howard Katz, is how its near-lunatic hero ever acquired the little kingdom he wrecks on the way to his own self-destruction. The son of an unassuming London barber and his wife, Howard is a cutthroat agent packing such ferocious anger that he alienates colleagues, clients, and family almost more easily than the producers he negotiates with. Marber doesn’t convey where the anger came from, or show us why anyone ever put up with it, though the information that Howard handles all of the agency’s loser clients is probably relevant. His problems seem to have something to do with God, but a hero so obtuse that he demands a sign from above while refusing to read the obvious ones already provided is hardly worth even God’s time. Nor is his story, as Marber tells it, particularly worth the quality acting that director Doug Hughes’s cast lavishes on it. Alfred Molina makes a gluttonous feast of Howard’s every tantrum, while the casting of Alvin Epstein, Elizabeth Franz, Jessica Hecht, and Euan Morton to play strings of small roles as the targets of his wrath is like a house painter using Rembrandt etchings as drop cloths.