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Review Roundup: The Public's KING LEAR Opens at the Delacorte

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The Public Theater's King Lear, the second show of The Public's free Shakespeare in the Park season at the Delacorte, opens tonight, August 5. Featuring John Lithgow as Lear, this enduring tragedy will run through Sunday, August 17.

The complete cast of King Lear featuresAnnette Bening (Goneril); Jeremy Bobb(Oswald); Steven Boyer (Fool); Jessica Collins (Cordelia); Glenn Fleshler (Cornwall); Jessica Hecht (Regan); Slate Holmgren (King of France); Christopher Innvar (Albany); Chukwudi Iwuji (Edgar); John Lithgow (Lear); Clarke Peters (Gloucester); Dale Place (Old Man, Curan); Jay O. Sanders (Kent); and Eric Sheffer Stevens (Edmund). The non-equity ensemble includes Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Andrew Burnap, Christopher Ghaffari, Ryan-James Hatanaka, Matt Helm, Dave Klasko, and Phillip Shinn.

KING LEAR features scenic design by John Lee Beatty, costume design by Susan Hilferty, lighting design by Jeff Croiter, sound design by ACME Sound Partners, and original music by Dan Moses Schreier.

Let's see what the critics had to say...

Ben Brantley, The New York Times: ...Though Mr. Lithgow is indeed acting up (what else?) a storm that compels admiration, the production, as a whole, can feel emotionally numb. Many of the line readings among the supporting cast members are coherent but cold, capturing the words' sense without sensibility...Though he has played his share of villains onstage and on screen, Mr. Lithgow exudes an innate decency that can never quite be disguised in live performance. There's a sweetness to his Lear, even at the beginning, when his gravest flaw seems to be nothing worse than a toddler's impetuous temper. For once, when Lear complains that he is "more sinned against than sinning," you believe him. 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.

Jesse Green, Vulture: Lear, at least during its final week of previews, proved commendable but vague, powerful but stolid: a statue not fully liberated from the stone. Perhaps time will improve it. if Daniel Sullivan's production leaves too many questions unanswered, it still has plenty of strengths. Lithgow gives an intelligent, always beautifully spoken performance, especially touching in its pathos as Lear begins to suspect his creeping madness and in his Act IV reconciliation with Cordelia.

Linda Winer, Newsday: Perhaps we should not be surprised that Lithgow makes an eloquent Lear, a man whose journey from royal majesty to exiled madness and ultimate understanding has been attempted a bit too often in New York lately. But Lithgow brings an internal coherence we don't always see, and this Lear's fall from petulant imperiousness to yowling primitive is both impressive and agonizing. Alas, he 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.

Peter Marks, Washington Post: It's not only the murdered Cordelia that John Lithgow bears onto the open-air stage of the Public Theater's "King Lear." All evening, this big, winning lug of an actor also has to carry an excessive amount of the poignant weight of Shakespeare's tragedy, in a production that does too little to lighten his burden.

Frank, Scheck, The Hollywood Reporter: Lithgow is a superb, experienced stage actor with two Tony Awards to his credit, and Annette Bening, who plays the treacherous Goneril, returns to the New York City stage after decades. But Lithgow here never plumbs the depth of the tortured Lear, staying stubbornly on the surface. His performance is feverishly pitched from beginning to end, lacking the subtle alterations necessary to make the character's progression from vain self-righteousness to madness to pathos sympathetic. We simply feel nothing for his Lear, despite the impressive physicality he exhibits and the anguished howls he emits upon Cordelia's death, which sound like they're from an animal escaped from the Central Park Zoo.

Gordon Cox, Variety: 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. But Lithgow and those thesps who play the maddened king's faithful supporters (chiefly his Fool and those loyalists Kent and Gloucester) form an emotional core that validates this sympathetic view of Lear as a foolish old man who commits one rash act and almost immediately regrets it.

David Cote, Time Out NY: Led by a magisterial yet vulnerable John Lithgow, this exceptional production addresses and finesses so many trouble spots in a problematic classic, it's like seeing it afresh...Lithgow uses his voice like a full orchestra, dredging up dreadful howls and moans from the bowels of the earth, while fully savoring Lear's rich, tragic verse. It all adds up the most emotionally naked and pitiable, the most human Lear in memory. Given all this excellence, I scarcely need note that Daniel Sullivan directed it. Unlike the mad king, I hope this sturdy fixture of Shakespeare in the Park never comes in from the wilderness.

Joe Dziemianowicz, New York Daily News: John Lithgow leads this umpteenth starry take on the tragedy to run in New York (actually, seven since 2007). He's petulant and sympathetic as the age-mauled monarch. The show also offers the first look at Annette Bening on stage here in nearly 30 years. As Lear's ferocious firstborn, Goneril, Bening summons her "American Beauty" bitchery. She beams an evil eye and gestures emphatically with an outstretched arm as though bullying the air - if not her sisters Regan (Jessica Hecht) and Cordelia (a spirited Jessica Collins). Bening is fine in her theatrical return - no more, no less. And that's par for the course in this proficient but seldom stirring production directed by Daniel Sullivan, whose "Merchant of Venice" with Al Pacino and "Twelfth Night" with Anne Hathaway at the open-air Delacorte were indelible.

Robert Kahn, NBC New York: It's difficult not to have a soft spot for Lithgow's tragic monarch, here a reasonable fellow blinded, just momentarily, by the insincere flattery of his two oldest daughters, Goneril and Regan (movie star Annette Bening, in her SITP debut, and lauded stage and TV actress Jessica Hecht)...I doubt anyone is heading to the Delacorte expecting to see Bening disappear into the role of deceitful Goneril. The Oscar-nominee, last seen on Broadway in 1988's "Coastal Disturbances," is icy and elegant as the disloyal and power-hungry daughter who becomes appalling even to her closest ally, husband Albany (the excellent Christopher Innvar). If I have any issue with Bening's performance, it's that she may be too sophisticated to fake flattery. When Goneril says: "Sir, I love you more than words can wield the matter; dearer than eye-sight, space and liberty," you want to believe the character. Bening's Goneril is already such an ... adult, that you have to wonder-how can her dad really fall for this?

Elysa Gardner, USA Today: In practice, sadly, this Lear, which opened Tuesday, generates about as much excitement as waiting for a pot to boil. Sullivan and his accomplished cast give us some heat, and plenty of noise, but in the end they get surprisingly little steam out of this epic tragedy. The fault lies not with Lear's stars, specifically. Lithgow mines the pathos and fury in the title role, and is particularly adroit at finding the wry humor in his character's expressions of confusion and woe. Even his last conversation with Cordelia, Lear's one true daughter - whose modest love he initially forsakes, setting into motion the chain of events that will undo him - has glimmers of rueful wit...

Terry Teachout, Wall Street Journal: Mr. Lithgow is playing at all times against type-and he gets away with it, filling his space with sharply drawn details that carry the sting of surprise. Never before have I seen a Lear who makes it so clear that he wants to be generous to Cordelia, his good daughter (played by Jessica Collins, who is quietly touching), or who articulates with such exactly graded clarity his descent into madness...Mr. Lithgow's performance excepted, Daniel Sullivan, the director, has given us a middle-of-the-road "Lear," traditionally costumed and enacted on a simple but monumental set by a cast whose members give performances that are often quite striking but seem (as was also the case in the Public's Sam Waterston-led 2011 "Lear") to be coming from completely different productions.

Steven Suskin, The Huffington Post: ...there is little lightning of the actorly or directorly sort, leaving us with a perfectly proficient production of the play--which is not what you would expect, or desire, from a Sullivan/Lithgow Lear...Lithgow, a genial and intelligent actor of impressive range, is equally adept at comedy and drama. Pathos, though, does not seem to be his strong suit; at least, not this time through. He has some fine moments in the role, usually in places where we can see flashes of sharp intellect through the haze of the character's mind. This is not a Lear that one is likely to care about or feel for...

Elisabeth Vincentelli, New York Post: His face half-submerged by snowy whiskers, 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. The eldest of his daughters is Bening's Goneril, who here looks like a matron back from Neiman Marcus, all haughty attitude and zero signs of internal life. Instead, she simply enunciates. Everything. Crisply.

Melissa Rose Bernardo, Entertainment Weekly: 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.

Matt Windman, amNY: There may be a surplus of "King Lear" revivals this year but that's no reason to miss out on or take for granted the straightforward but superb Shakespeare in the Park production of the play with John Lithgow and Annette Bening. "King Lear" hasn't been done by the Public Theater in the park for more than 40 years (not since James Earl Jones played the title role). To be frank, it's easier to do one of Shakespeare's lighter romantic comedies in the park than any of the great tragedies.

Alexis Soloski, Guardian: King Lear is a prickly tragedy, easy to admire, hard to love, rich in futility, poor in consolation. And it's a hell of a role, so inconstant, so changeable. New York has boasted a lot of famous Lears in recent years - Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi, Frank Langella, Sam Waterston, etc - but none who seemed fully in command of the part from start to finish. (Jacobi came pretty close.) So it's hard to blame Lithgow for struggling at time. After all, Lear remains a mystery, even to himself. "Who is it," he asks, so urgently, so hopelessly, "that can tell me who I am?"

Jeremy Gerard, Deadline: At over three hours, this Lear would be a slog but for the one inspired bit of casting, Delacorte and Public Theater regular Jay O. Sanders as Kent, the faithful nobleman the king wrongly casts out, only to return in disguise and become his protector. Sanders is so fully, so humanly in the role, one wishes he could save the production as well.

Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

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