With his slight, wiry figure, his imposing eyebrows, and his omnipresence on syndicated TV as Law & Order’s principled prosecutor Jack McCoy, Sam Waterston is everybody’s idea of a spry, fair, likable fellow. But alas, there’s a downside to such goodwill: He is nobody’s idea of a King Lear. Aside from the fact that Waterston is now an age-appropriate 71 years old and has a long and glorious history of performing in the plays of Shakespeare at the Public Theater, his casting as the old, mad, foolish, raging royal father is a mystery. It’s also just the first of many confounding creative decisions made in the messy, grating, noisily misbegotten new production of King Lear now on stage at the Public’s Newman Theater.
Without physical heft or the appearance of aged infirmity on his side, Waterston tilts his Lear not just toward incipient madness but directly to a kind of cuckoo eccentricity that, all the worse, fits right in with the cuckoo eccentricity of this production, directed by James MacDonald. The set is nearly bare save for a few props (very Samuel Beckett) and a busy curtain constructed of rattling metal links (very chain mail meets 1970s office building). The lighting is harsh, flat. The aggressively clashing costumes, in a range of unhappy colors, are a rummage sale’s worth of stuff from all eras. The sound, especially when Lear is wandering the blasted heath in full babble during a storm, is painful, accompanied by migraine-inducing bursts of light. If there is a philosophy or metaphor that MacDonald and his production team are going for — something about living in a whole world gone crazy with bad fashion sense? Something about cockeyed reality as Lear sees it? — it is not conveyed clearly.
Instead, the message received is that every actor is on his or her own on this poor stage, free to muck about, mostly in the muck. A lucky few — especially an excellent Michael McKean as Gloucester and Arian Moayed as his son Edgar — persevere with honor. The sisters Goneril (Enid Graham), Regan (Kelli O’Hara), and Cordelia (Kristen Connolly) are fortunate to pass us, and one another, like separate, barely distinguishable distant planets. Waterston shouts his lines in a gravelly voice and goes for jerky gestures and bits of stage business to convey kingly instability and a fatherly pride that crumbles into humiliation and regret. Yet he looks every inch a king compared with the outrageous mugging, shtick, and discordant hoo-hah Bill Irwin indulges in to play The Fool. Irwin is royalty when it comes to clowning and new-style vaudeville, an art he perfected in the 1980s and 1990s with great stage shows including The Regard of Flight and Fool Moon. But King Lear calls for a different, deeper sort of foppery than Irwin has in mind. With the indulgence of a director apparently more interested in messing around with Shakespeare than digging for deeper meaning, Irwin’s Fool is all performance flash, no substance. And as Shakespeare said, out of Lear’s mouth: Nothing will come of nothing. D
(Tickets: PublicTheater.org or 212-967-7555)