We gave it a B
Why would an aged father spurn his truest child? The question drives both the main plot and a supporting story in Shakespeare’s fiercely nihilistic King Lear. But that foreground-background split is out of whack in the Lear now holding court at the Public Theater. Why? Because the star, 59-year-old stage veteran Kevin Kline, never quite winds himself up into the evening’s mainspring. He’s not nearly as moving as the play’s ostensibly secondary dad, the Earl of Gloucester.
In the hands of Larry Bryggman, an accomplished stage actor who did improbably good work for decades as Dr. John Dixon on the soap As the World Turns, Gloucester’s easy gullibility makes the heart break. Misled by bastard son Edmund (Logan Marshall-Green), Gloucester spurns his elder, legitimate child, Edgar (Brian Avers). When the loving, wronged Edgar finds a way, disguised, to save his father — now blinded in a fitting externalization of his oblivious behavior — the old man’s professions of regret are so strangled by tears they’re piteous. Exactly the goal of a tragedy.
Kline, meanwhile, plays Lear’s plunge into parental madness more as a brittle lark than a dark night of the soul. He neatly captures the vanity of Lear’s decision to split his kingdom among his three daughters, the proportions depending on how well each can publicly profess adulation. But when Cordelia (Kristen Bush), the youngest and most steadfast, displeases the patriarch by refusing to toady, Kline never escalates into any convincing display of rage. (One element that does click: Kline’s generous mop of white hair. Complemented by a dour mustache and fulsome beard, it looks exquisitely leonine at first, then increasingly bedraggled — a splendid act of bodily transformation.) As familial treachery drives Lear into full-on lunacy, Kline strides on stage attired in diaper-like rags and a crown of twigs, brandishing a stick as a sword. It gets laughs, intentionally — yet the intention feels misplaced, more suited to a Pirates of Penzance brigand (which Kline played superbly on stage and screen in the early ’80s) than to an imploding senior citizen.
Still, James Lapine’s production has many other felicities. Angela Pierce and Laura Odeh take wickedly malicious turns as Lear’s bad-seed girls, Goneril and Regan. There’s also inspired stagecraft in a setting of metal-grate floor panels, centered on a sandpit map of the kingdom; as the panels are removed, the grainy floor looks more and more like a gladiatorial arena. Perfect. (A score by Stephen Sondheim and Michael Starobin, alas, barely registers.) This Lear, played in a 275-seat house, is worth seeing for the theatrical intimacy. But filmed versions with Laurence Olivier, Paul Scofield, and Ian Holm hold deeper dregs.