No one’s idea of typical summer fare and rarely mounted during the Public Theater’s season in Central Park, Shakespeare’s Matterhorn of a tragedy King Lear arrives at the Delacorte with John Lithgow in the title role and Annette Bening as Goneril, the eldest and most duplicitous of the addled monarch’s three daughters. Bard and Delacorte regular Daniel Sullivan (among his other Free Shakespeare credits is The Merchant Of Venice, which starred Al Pacino and moved to Broadway) directs this lucid but unengaging production.
An imposing, if never exactly commanding, Lear, Lithgow follows very recent outings in the role by Frank Langella at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Sam Waterston at the Public and Michael Pennington at Theatre For A New Audience. Of the four, Lithgow — twice a Tony winner and certainly a stage devotee notwithstanding his fame as Dr. Dick Solomon in the NBC sitcom Third Rock From The Sun — delivers the most intellectualized performance, meting out changes in the king from needy egomaniac to blithering exile and, finally, ruined, haunted shell, like so many morsels in a King Lear repast. It’s interesting, I suppose — yet as bloodless as that word implies. Lacking a central performance capable of shattering our hearts (something I know can be done only because I’ve actually seen it happen), King Lear tends to stall out in the play’s longueurs and weird diversionary subplots.
Haughty and halting, Bening (who had an extraordinary New York stage career before departing for LA) seems stranded, perhaps a result of Lithgow’s detachment. (Or perhaps they just got too friendly during those aren’t-we-all-just-dedicated-searchers-for-dramatic-truths that the loquacious Lithgow recorded in his faux-intimate blog entries, which ran from the beginning of rehearsals, in the New York Times. There were several times when I wanted to beg him, Please, will you please just shut up? Then again, maybe he’s focused on his immediate segue into the Broadway revival of Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance, which begins previews October 20).
Jessica Hecht’s Regan is not remotely connected to the Lear clan, and as poor, renounced Cordelia, Jessica Collins is simply out of her league. More entertaining are Eric Sheffer Stevens and Chukwudi Iwuki as Edmund (the evil bastard) and Edgar (the good boy), the sons of Clark Peters’ credulous Gloucester. Steven Boyer is loose and deceptively spontaneous as Lear’s Fool.
At over three hours, this Lear would be a slog but for the one inspired bit of casting, Delacorte and Public Theater regular Jay O. Sanders as Kent, the faithful nobleman the king wrongly casts out, only to return in disguise and become his protector. Sanders is so fully, so humanly in the role, one wishes he could save the production as well.