There's a tendency to define any production of King Lear by its lead actor. For instance, earlier this year we had Frank Langella's Lear. A few years ago, Sam Waterston's King Lear. In the last decade, New Yorkers have seen Ian McKellen's, Kevin Kline's, Derek Jacobi's, Christopher Plummer's... But as towering a presence as any above-the-title actor is, there are 15 to 20 (sometimes even 30) other people meandering about for three-plus hours. Ultimately, King Lear rises or falls on the strengths of its supporting cast and the new free Shakespeare in the Park production in New York City's open-air Delacorte Theater, headlined by John Lithgow, eventually falls.
Emmy and Tony winner Lithgow is more than capable of climbing Shakespeare's Everest, even if his flourishes in the early scenes read as more imperious than royal. The further Lear descends into madness, the more compassion Lithgow elicits. When he's finally reunited with his once-spurned daughter Cordelia (Jessica Collins, underplaying nicely), with Lear in the throes of dementia, he leaves himself beautifully exposed, fragile and childlike.
As for his faithful followers: Jay O. Sanders (The Apple Family Plays) brings his trademark folksy delivery and rough-hewn appeal to the banished courtier–turned–ruffian servant Kent. And perhaps more than any Fool I've ever seen, Steven Boyer makes sense of Shakespeare's nonsensical riddles and rhymes, and finds striking, quiet moments amid all the sound and fury. ''Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise,'' he declares, as he looks at Lear sadly. (Boyer's casting follows a recent trend of young Fools, which will hopefully continue. The Fool–as–surrogate son notion adds an intriguing dimension to this so-frequently-performed tragedy.)
But alack the villains! As Lear's eldest, and supposedly most vicious, daughter, Annette Bening in her first New York stage appearance since 1987 looks a bit bored, and always seems to be using her hand to make a point. (Either that or she's swatting at mosquitos in the open-air theater.) As middle daughter Regan, Jessica Hecht relies on her usual quivery vocal tics very fitting when she's in quirky comedies by Sarah Ruhl or Richard Greenberg, but less convincing when she's nose-to-nose with a guy whose eyes are about to be plucked out. And Eric Sheffer Stevens' Edmund, the bastard son of Gloucester (the always terrific Clarke Peters, who'd make a fine Lear himself one day) endears himself to the audience as he outlines his plans: He sends away his half-brother, Edgar (Chukwudi Iwuji); convinces their dad that Edgar was plotting his murder; exposes his father as a traitor; and ponders marrying Goneril or Regan. Yet he doesn't come off as much of a charmer. And save one not-so-passionate kiss, there's a marked lack of furtive stares and fiery glances between him and his supposed paramours.
Under the direction of Daniel Sullivan who worked wonders at the Delacorte with All's Well that Ends Well in 2011 the play retains its intimacy under the spectacular Central Park sky. (He also whips up a spectacular storm sequence.) Yet this Lear simply isn't as grand as it could have been. B–