Kelsey Grammer's ''Macbeth'' -- The ''Frasier'' star reprises one of his Shakespearean roles

By Ty Burr
Updated June 30, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

Kelsey Grammer’s ”Macbeth”

Perhaps Kelsey Grammer can be allowed a twinge of peevish empathy when he speaks Macbeth’s line about wearing ”a fruitless crown.” On one hand, he’s the reigning king of TV comedy, our beloved, befuddled Dr. Frasier Crane. On the other, he’s an actor with plenty of Broadway experience with the Bard under his belt, previously playing Macbeth in 1981 and appearing in Othello opposite James Earl Jones in 1982.

Yet, on the evidence of his latest Macbeth, which launched its seven-week run in the Great White Way’s Music Box Theatre on June 15 after a rocky Boston tryout, audiences and critics are having trouble parsing the two sides of Grammer. As the sell-out crowd gathered on the sidewalk before the play’s final preview performance, a twentysomething guy joked to his friend, ”Where’s David Hyde Pierce, dude?”

But then, Macbeth has always attracted mavericks and masochists. The most elemental of Shakespeare’s tragedies, it’s long had a rap as the un-lucky ”Scottish play,” even while filmmakers as diverse as Orson Welles, Roman Polanski, and Akira Kurosawa have mined it for cinematic gold. Not a drama you’ll see Ethan Hawke in any time soon, it’s a middle-aged man’s tale, rife with ambitious careerism and corporate paranoia, and it features, among other things, the mother of all henpecking wives in Lady Macbeth. Just the sort of vacation, in other words, that a guy who’s been playing the same TV role for 16 years might welcome during his summer hiatus.

Macbeth needs the brute thrust of a broadsword to work, however, and director Terry Hands’ minimalist staging offers all the edge of a letter opener. And Grammer? Swimming upstream against the audience’s incipient scorn, he gives a respectable performance that, while not deepening our understanding of the character, hits all the salient points with furrowed intelligence. Still, he’s undone by association: When we hear Grammer speak in these plummy, orotund tones on Frasier, it’s a sign the good doctor’s pomposity is ripe for the pricking — and when he delivers, with heartfelt timing, the ”Is this a dagger I see before me?” soliloquy, it’s impossible not to hear our TV buddy. This Macbeth begs the question: Can any actor retain the dignity of his trade when he coasts into our house on a laugh track every week?

There was no ready answer from theatergoers. Titters greeted the scene where Lady Macbeth (a feverish Diane Venora) berated her husband for forgetting to leave the daggers by Duncan’s body — as though the Thane of Cawdor should have come back with a one-liner. Afterward, audience members were ambivalent. Greer McKenna, an English teacher from New Jersey, found Grammer’s performance ”wonderful,” even as she couldn’t help noticing that ”his shoes were distracting. They were too big.” New Yorker Josh Sherman was able to forget about Frasier, but thought the star was ”a little Shatner-ian at times — he was caught up in being a great man speaking great lines.” Nastier still was the varlet who bluntly stated, ”It sucked. He wasn’t Frasier, but he wasn’t good.”

Perhaps — but he still gets points for guts. And just maybe, to paraphrase a different Shakespearean villain, the perceived faults of this performance lie not in our stars but in ourselves.