Review by Tulis McCall
There is a moment in the opening scene of King Lear on which I believe the entire play hinges. This production by Shakespeare in the Park at the Delacorte Theater was no exception. After the announcement of his “darker purpose”, Lear declares that his kingdom and power will be divided among his three daughters. He metaphorically claps his hands and asks his daughters to tell him which of them loves him best. He does this because there is no Mrs. Lear to tell him, “Bad idea, Buckaroo.” The first two daughters line up like Cinderella’s sisters on a runway to see who can outdo whom in professing their love. First Goneril (Annette Bening) and then Regan (Jessica Hecht) shovel the manure so fast you nearly reach for your wading boots. Finally it is Cordelia’s turn, but when Lear begs her for speech more opulent, she balks. She will not blather about love when she can say it plainly. But this is not what her father wants to hear. When Cordelia balks, Lear snaps.
That is the moment. This tiny pas de deux, which you will miss if you blink.
Initially it is Cordelia’s move, and she has to hit it spot on – she has no lead in line, nothing to guide her to this moment in the script. It is a leap worthy of an Olympic medal if she gets it. And if she does, the moment is passed to Lear in a flash. It is he who must make the catch and slam the nail into the coffin of their relationship.
In the most recent productions that I have seen, one Cordelia delivered and two did not. In this production, Jessica Collins handled her moment beautifully. John Lithgow, as Lear, fumbled the pass. His reaction was flighty and without depth. It was more of a hissy fit than a man who has been gravely wounded by his own blind misinterpretation. The rest of the evening followed down the fumbled path.
This is a disjointed, mechanical and plodding production. It is supposed to be about a man kicked off his high horse and brought down to his own common denominator. And as he tumbles, we want (and don’t want) to be taken with him because his humanity is directly connected to ours. But there is none of that here. Lithgow as Lear is nearly light-hearted in his decent, getting laughs at lines that should break out hearts. As well, his Fool, Steven Boyer, seems about as concerned for his master’s demise as a man strolling through the park in search of a good night’s entertainment. A matched pair of the uncompelling.
Jay O. Sanders is a bright spot, though I liked him better disguised as Caius than as the Earl of Kent. Clarke Peters’ Earl of Gloucester is moving and elegant as are his two sons Edgar (Chukwudi Iwuji) and Edmond (Sheffer Stevens). Jessica Hecht brings nuance to Regan. So it is not a horrid evening. It’s just that nothing sticks to anything. There is no thread that pulls them together. There are moments upon moments. And I must say I can’t remember any production where so many characters spent so much time backing up (Annette Bening takes the prize here). Hello in there!!! The only time we humans back up is to get out of the way of someone or something. These folks were backing up as though someone was pulling them on a cord, which translates into them looking like they are not certain of their blocking or intention.
I never cared about any of them. Not a whit. I do care about the actors who are all out there giving it everything and being the butt for the slings and arrows that are bound to be aimed. Mr. Sullivan’s direction fails to support them as they steer their craft through the evening. In the final scene, when pretty much all the main players are dead, and Albany (Christopher Innvar) says “Our present business is general woe,” it rings too true. Way too true.
"This Lear is also perhaps the most solitary I have met. It’s not that Mr. Lithgow is a selfish star. He reaches out to his fellow performers, but the feedback is often minimal. In an odd way, this suits the play’s theme of existential isolation. Certainly, Lear’s voyage into the dark has never felt lonelier."
Ben Brantley for New York Times
"For its star, “King Lear” offers a Mount Everest. The Public Theater’s revival of Shakespeare’s classic is so middle of the road, however, it takes audiences to a far less lofty high."
Joe Dziemianowicz for NY Daily News
"Lithgow seems relatively benevolent at the beginning, like Santa playing favorites with his three daughters. He fares best when Lear falls from grace into madness, adding flashes of light whimsy into the king's doddering vulnerability. What's missing is the tragedy - we never really get a sense of Lear's soul- and mind-crushing pain..."
Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post
"[Lithgow] is one of the few satisfactions in this drab, unevenly cast production, directed with an atypical lack of inspiration by Daniel Sullivan. At best, Annette Bening, not on a New York stage since 1988, is methodical and self-conscious as Goneril, one of Lear's horrid daughters, while the usually splendid Jessica Hecht is bizarrely shrill and jokey as sister Regan."
Linda Winer for Newsday
"John Lithgow has a great gift for playing comedy high (“Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”) and low (“3rd Rock from the Sun”). So who would think he’d give us such a piteous Lear? The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park staging of “King Lear,” directed by Daniel Sullivan, has its ups and downs, the big downers being a weird production concept and questionable casting..."
Gordon Cox for Variety
"Or you could say it’s a production that doesn’t yet have its skin on. Unlike Sullivan’s other Shakespearean stagings — especially his excellent Delacorte Merchant of Venice, with Al Pacino, four summers ago — it almost entirely lacks the lively small gestures that texturize a play’s surface."
Jesse Green for Vulture
External links to full reviews from popular press...