Despite all its verbal beauty and psychological fascination, I’ve never wholly loved Shakespeare’s Richard II (Pearl Theatre at City Center Stage II). Its pageant-like formality, distancing in itself, always seems to have smoothed away some vital human element: This is the Shakespeare play in which even a gardener talks in rhymed couplets and uses his trade as a moral allegory on good government. Then, too, the divine right of kings, a concept that no American can completely fathom, is one of the work’s principal ideas. Richard (Sean McNall) constantly recurs to it; even his cousin Bolingbroke (Grant Goodman), who upsets the apple cart of succession, gets sufficiently guilt-stricken over it to end the evening by taking a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to atone. His stolen throne will still be tormenting him, as Henry IV, two plays later in Shakespeare’s sequence.
Luckily, Richard, the play’s tragic hero, is also its resident poet and ironist. Even more luckily, the Pearl’s production offers Sean McNall in the role. Physically slight and soft-voiced, McNall has the born repertory actor’s ability to maintain or throw off vast amounts of emotionally weighty presence, becoming in a blink a fraught Tennessee Williams protagonist or a hulking Restoration-comedy country bumpkin. Here he is elfin, airily rueful, gamely trying to bear the crown’s responsibilities in the first half, but seeming to have much more fun after he has been forced to relinquish it. Once his need to sit in judgment has ended, he can dive into the verbal games with genuine glee. I never saw a Richard take so much joy in making his followers sit upon the ground to tell sad stories of the death of kings.
Always a welcome antidote to the play’s stately shift from one emblematic tableau to the next, Richard’s joy in verbalizing serves as a sweetener to J.R. Sullivan’s somber production, steady-paced but unhurried. Goodman tends to thunder somewhat mechanically, but other performances offer more textured playing. Bill Christ’s bluff, tormented Duke of York, Carol Schultz as his frenetic Duchess, and Charlie Francis Murphy, doubling as the double-dealer Bagot and the remorseful executioner Exton, are among the production’s assets. Interestingly, if you ignore the divine-right debate, Richard II becomes all about money. Since we almost never see Richard, as ruler, doing anything actively unjust, the aristocrats’ complaints against him start to look far more like Tea Party pettiness and greed than like matters of honor. Michael Feingold