If a man is so committed to his principles that he's willing to sacrifice his life for them, is he great and noble? Plato tells us that Socrates did just this, drinking a cup of poison rather than agreeing to stop "corrupting" the youth of Athens, his alleged crime. Of course, Socrates detested his wife, Xanthippe, so perhaps this death sentence provided him with a serendipitous exit strategy.
But suppose this man who lived by his principles, never wavering, never hypocritical, had a loving wife and daughter who depended on him for their support. And suppose that by accepting a death sentence rather than betraying those principles, his loved ones would be left in poverty and in danger. Is he still noble? Or is he, rather, guilty of hubris?
Such is the dilemma of Sir Thomas More, martyr of the Catholic Church, in a brilliant new production of "A Man for All Seasons," starring Frank Langella. Peter Bolt's 1961 play Is as lyrical, powerful, witty and profound as any written by Tom Stoppard, and the choice of Langella to portray this larger-than-life figure was probably the result of divine inspiration, as well it should have been.
More was Lord Chancellor to Henry VIII, and the two enjoyed a close friendship until Henry decided to ditch his wife, Catherine of Aragon, in favor of the fertile and lovely Anne Boleyn whom he hoped would give him a male heir. Being a devout Christian who believed that the Roman admonishment against divorce had the weight of divine law, More refused to sign the Act of Succession which made Anne Henry's queen. Henry, however, would brook no opposition and he did as he pleased.
Excommunicated by the Pope, he established the Church of England, an apostasy that More could not reconcile with his beliefs. For this defiance, and with false testimony given by his former aide, Richard Rich, More is convicted as a traitor and dragged off to the Tower of London. The rest, as they say, is history.
Langella's portrayal of the man conflicted by his duty to the law, to religious doctrine, to his friend, and to his loving wife and daughter truly gives us a man for all seasons. An actor of great range, he moves easily from lighthearted humor as he verbally jousts with kith and kin, to commanding moments in which he reveals his inner turmoil. The farewell scene between More and his wife Alice gives him yet another dimension of tenderness and despair. Langella has said it's his job to grab the audience by the throat and hold them till the end, and he succeeds on all counts.
Zach Grenier as the demonic Thomas Cromwell who engineers More's conviction comes a long way from the fatherly figure he portrayed in "New Jerusalem." Jeremy Strong as the wily Rich makes us want to smack him for his smugness. Patrick Page's Henry exudes an exuberant sexuality and impulsiveness that lends credence to the immediacy of his dilemma. And Hannah Cabell as Margaret shows the obstinacy and brilliance you'd expect from More's daughter, especially in her erudite exchange with the King in Latin.
But Maryann Plunkett, missing from the Broadway stage since her breathtaking performance in "The Crucible," is heartbreaking as Alice, standing up to her husband who's decision will determine what happens to her and their daughter. After all, it's her life too that hangs in the balance, and it will drastically change as a result of More's unbending adherence to principle.
Doug Hughes's direction of "A Man for All Seasons" suits our modern day sensibilities and shows how the actions of one man can make a lasting difference in the world. Gone are the tortures of the Tower of London, but greed and battles for power persist unabated. Bolt's insightful study of this deeply ethical man who takes a stand against the wrongful acts of King and country is as relevant now as ever. "A Man for All Seasons" is a play for all seasons.
Barbara Mehlman & Geri Manus
"Is it heresy to whisper that the sainted Thomas More is a bit of a bore? Even Frank Langella, an actor who can be counted on to put the pepper in mashed-potato parts, doesnï¿½t find much variety in the monolithic goodness of the title character of ''A Man for All Seasons,'' " & "Mind you, Mr. Langella is inarguably a Great Presence in the respectful revival."
New York Times
"While it's always exciting seeing the triple Tony winner (Frank Langella) - most recently for 'Frost/Nixon' - onstage, this parched Roundabout revival all too seldom ignites." & "As an ethics lesson, it clicks, but far less so as a rousing, full-blooded drama."
New York Daily News
"While its theme of individual conscience clashing with the demands of the state remains all too relevant, the drama is a somewhat static, talky affair that is only intermittently compelling. Fortunately, Langella is so mesmerizing in the lead role that he single-handedly overcomes the evening's more tedious passages."
New York Post
"Would be mighty dull were it not for the majestic presence of Frank Langella.... "Roundabout Theatre Company's revival offers more talk than action, but due to Langella's compelling ways, "A Man for All Seasons" usually commands attention."
"Though wayward, is at least good enough for one season." & " Frank Langella in a bravura performance." & "The supporting cast is uneven... Yet with all this unevenness, this is still a play that is both literate and theatrical, and able to hold our interest."
"Two long and hardly brisk acts are devoted largely to having More explain and defend his intellectual and moral philosophy to those who support, challenge and betray him. It's thought-provoking stuff but not always the most compelling drama." & "In the end, only the leading man can ensure that Seasons sustains its subtle spark, and Langella is, happily, more than up to the task."
"A fiery trial scene is always good for picking up an otherwise slow evening.. .. Frank Langella as the soon-to-be-martyred Sir Thomas More gives it the full voltage only such a powerhouse performer can provide.... .. It's exciting theatre, but it arrives after an uneventful two hours, directed with workmanlike competence by Doug Hughes." & "The supporting performances are mostly as everyday as the direction ï¿½ proficient but not riveting."
"Is like a monthly dinner date with an old friend. You know itï¿½ll be comfortable, but excitement isnï¿½t in the cards." & "Frank Langella is very good, effortlessly persuading us of Moreï¿½s wit, charm, stature and, finally, grievous suffering. The performance, though, doesnï¿½t transcend the play, which has been given a traditional production by director Doug Hughes."
"Even with Langella gloriously emoting on the American Airlines stage, Roundabout's "A Man for All Seasons" can't quite shake a sermonlike feeling."
"Frank Langella is electric...But the production that surrounds Langella is not up to the star's charismatic performance." & "Director Doug Hughes brings a smart pace to the proceedings, but the performances are erratic."
The Hollywood Reporter
"The 1961 drama about the martyrdom of the chancellor of England under Henry VIII is not without windy preachiness. But the Roundabout staging becomes more gripping as it proceeds, driven by a performance from Frank Langella as measured and naturalistic as it is majestic."