BY LINDA WINER
March 8, 2007
If there's anything Kevin Kline cannot do onstage, we have not yet seen it. Pirate king or Hamlet (twice), matinee hambone or Falstaff in a fat suit, Kline may well be the truest heart in this country's ambivalent hope for popular classical theater.
Chronologically, it feels awfully early for his "King Lear," the daunting mountain of tragic poetry and family business that other actors of a certain age - including Jason Robards and Peter O'Toole - have left untouched at the top of their proclaimed wish lists.
But here he is, at 59, back at the Public Theater, where producer Joseph Papp raised him, after impresario John Houseman trained him, looking like Zeus gone mad in a soulful, courageous, heart-shredding portrayal of deluded patriarchy. In a leonine white beard and white hair, Kline convinces us, only 24 years after "The Big Chill," that he indeed could be the aged father of three grown daughters.
James Lapine's uneven but thoughtful modern production allows Lear to carry glints of a loving core on his primal journey from monstrous cruelty and dementia to the agony of self-discovery too late. As critic Kenneth Tynan observed, "To feel the cold of the heath, we must first feel the warmth of the hearth."
Lapine establishes nostalgia for that comfort by first showing Lear's daughters as little girls, lovely children who spray-paint what turns out to be a map of their father's kingdom on a box of sand. Their dresses are color-coded to match what they wear as grown-ups and, at moments of hallucinatory poignancy, the girls drift into the shadows of their adult counterparts as reminders of lost grace.
Reminders, alas, are essential. Lapine's elegant sensibility has let him down in the casting and depiction of Lear's ungrateful daughters (Angela Pierce as Goneril, Laura Odeh as Regan) as well as his loyal, misunderstood one (Kristin Bush as Cordelia). Lapine seems unable to resist the cliche of turning the two selfish girls into cartoon updates on Cinderella's evil stepsisters - albeit sexually voracious ones. And Cordelia, the pivotal sacrifice to their father's vanity, too often disappears into the scenery.
The production boasts incidental music - a few mournful melodies against shimmering vibraphone and chimes - by no less than Stephen Sondheim and his frequent orchestrator Michael Starobin. The functionally austere modern setting, designed by Heidi Ettinger, is a double-deck expanse of metal grates, lit in autumnal copper by David Lander.
Costumes, designed by Jess Goldstein, suggest perhaps the mid-20th century. Women wear evening gowns or rakish hunting clothes. Men tend toward brocade vests, and formal stripes on their pants, until things get brutally exposed in burlap for Lear and his exiled friends.
Some of the male casting is deliciously luxurious. Michael Cerveris (most recently seen as the murderous Sweeney Todd) portrays loyal Kent, and Larry Bryggman is Gloucester, who gets his eyes gauged out with splatter-movie realism. Logan Marshall-Green (Trey on "The O.C.") brings a distracting smart-alecky self-consciousness to the bravado of Edmund, Gloucester's illegitimate son, but Brian Avers has a quiet decency as Edgar, the good son.
Lear's Fool (Philip Goodwin) looks like Harpo Marx as conceived by Samuel Beckett. Despite a brief, jarring Jimmy Durante imitation, we appreciate his being a contemporary of his boss who can both mock Lear and be viscerally concerned about him.
Kline combines Lear's magisterial physical intensity with a surprising and heartbreaking lightness of spirit. Unlike Christopher Plummer's overwrought and enfeebled Lear at Lincoln Center Theatre in 2004, this king begins his disastrous descent with suggestions of royal vitality, wagging his shaggy head as fury turns to disbelief and then befuddlement.
In "Henry IV" at Lincoln Center in 2003, Kline understood that Falstaff was not a clown or a grotesque, but a nobleman with an outlaw's soul. Here, he dares to inhabit a Lear who remembers playfulness, who may not ever have been a genius, but who struggles, visibly, with the darkness of beautifully spoken tragedy.
Kline has always struck me as a great character actor trapped in a leading man's body. In sober romantic roles, he tends to be a bit restrained, as if handsomeness were more of a costume than something he assumed with the entitled perks of natural vanity.
Put him in a disguise, however, and the truth comes out.
KING LEAR. Shakespeare's tragedy directed by James Lapine. Through March 25 at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., Manhattan. Tickets $60. Call 212-967-7555. Seen at Friday preview.
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