At 76, the Tony-winning stage and screen actor Frank Langella remains an imposing physical presence with his broad shoulders and booming voice. He's a natural choice for the addled, self-abdicating title role in Shakespeare's King Lear, the sort of man who is accustomed to having his every whim obeyed instantly and whose sudden self-made reversal in fortune leaves him all the more bereft.
In director Angus Jackson's straightforward and first-rate production, originally mounted at England's Chichester Festival and playing through Feb. 9 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Theater, Langella is even more touching in later scenes that capture Lear in a state of wrenching vulnerability. Sitting spread-legged on the floor as he's reunited with Cordelia, the once-beloved daughter he impulsively disinherited (Isabella Laughland), he moves his feet like windshield wipers as he calls out, ''No, no, no, no! Come, let's away to prison.'' It’s a touching peek at a titan reduced to a childlike state by dementia and hubris.
Among the supporting players, the strongest impressions are made by Denis Conway as Gloucester, a Lear loyalist whose eyes are plucked out in defense of his monarch (they are tossed upstage with gruesome and audible relish), and Sebastian Armesto as Gloucester's son Edgar, who feigns madness as the loinclothed hermit Poor Tom to escape his conniving and lecherous half-brother (Max Bennett, interestingly understated). And if Lear's Fool seems surprisingly young and vaguely familiar, that's because Harry Melling is best known as Dudley Dursley in the Harry Potter films.
The physical production is spare but effective. Robert Innes Hopkins' clever set features an inset puzzle of wooden floor planks in the rough shape of England that lift to become a pool for the climactic rainstorm, which is strikingly lit by lighting designer Peter Mumford. (Hopkins also designed the costumes.)
At times, the stage effects (and Fergus O'Hare's sound design) threaten to drown out Shakespeare's memorable lines. But Jackson's showiest effect is Langella himself, whose occasional flashes of lucidity in the midst of mental decay have their own poetry. Indeed, when he reappears in the final scene half-carrying, half-dragging the slain Cordelia, he stutter-steps to center stage in an almost iambic gait. A–