BWW Reviews: Sullivan's KING LEAR Lacks Serpent's Tooth Sharpness
A priest performs a ritual with holy water before Shakespeare's text takes over in director Daniel Sullivan's Delacorte production of King Lear, and indeed the ensuing three hours convey the feeling of witnessing a ritual rather than being moved by a great human tragedy.
Designer John Lee Beatty mounts a tall wall that completely blocks the audience's view of Central Park, save for the American flag flying over Belvedere Castle. Fuzzy collages of light will cover its surface and below there's a long stage made of logs placed far enough upstage to significantly cut off the connection between actors and audience. Nearly the entire production takes place on this bare platform that offers little opportunity for staging variety.
The over-amplified voices are jarring at first, what with the actors placed so far away, as the evening goes on the heightened volume limits opportunities for interesting vocal textures.
Still, this is King Lear, and despite the abundance of productions New Yorkers have had to choose from in recent years (Sam Waterston, Frank Langella, Michael Pennington...), the versatile and engaging John Lithgow offers enough reasons to take in another evening with the aging, delusional monarch who learns the hard way which of his three daughters truly loves him.
With a puffy white beard and a gleeful glint, Lithgow resembles St. Nicholas on Christmas morning when he presents his children with a map, intending to divide his kingdom three ways with the richest land going to the one with the most lavish proclamation of her love for him.
Annette Bening plays the treacherous firstborn, Goneril, with a haughty air and imposing presence, but the off-beat timbre and timing of Jessica Hecht makes many of middle child Regan's lines inappropriately funny.
Lear's descent into vulnerability and madness from his two eldest offsprings' betrayal and his realization that he rejected the only child who honestly loved him (a fine Jessica Collins) shows off Lithgow's talent for the unexpected, but Sullivan's oppressively standard production allows little depth to shine forward.
There are good supporting turns by Steven Boyer as a cynically tinged fool and Jay O. Sanders (whose resume of terrific stage performances warrants a shot at Lear himself) as a hearty Earl of Kent, but despite some high points, this production never quite achieves serpent's tooth sharpness.