Thursday, October 9, 2008

Bolt's Saint

A Man for All Seasons
Written by Robert Bolt
Directed by Doug Hughes
Starring Frank Langella, Hannah Cabell, Michael Esper, Zach Grenier, Dakin Matthews, George Morfogen, Patrick Page, Maryann Plunkett, Jeremy Strong, Michel Gill

Performances from September 12 to December 7, 2008

American Airlines Theatre
227 West 42nd Street

Langella in A Man for All Seasons (photo: Joan Marcus)
In his solid but unspectacular staging of Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, director Doug Hughes ensures that no one upstages Frank Langella, who plays Sir Thomas More, the role originated by Paul Scofield when Bolt’s historical drama about political intrigue and personal morality during the Henry VIII’s reign debuted in London in 1960. (Scofield won the Tony when the play came to Broadway, then went on to win the Oscar in Fred Zinnemann’s 1966 film adaptation, which was also named Best Picture.)

Of course, since Sir Thomas is onstage for almost the entire play, Langella remains front and center throughout. Bolt has enshrined Sir Thomas—who alone stood up to the king’s demand for an annulment so he could marry Anne Boleyn—as a man of unwavering principles, even in the face of jealous rivals such as Thomas Cromwell, whose campaign against him ends in Sir Thomas’s denunciation by the king and subsequent execution. (It must be said that the real Thomas More was not nearly as noble as Bolt has made him.)

Since its premiere, A Man for All Seasons has been dramatically diluted by the subtraction of The Common Man, a Brechtian device in which Bolt used an actor to narrate, fill in historical gaps, move scenery, and play small but significant roles like the executioner. The film version was the first to excise him, and director Hughes also got permission from Bolt’s son to drop him for this production. Streamlining the play thus now makes it an interesting but far less absorbing historical drama that consists almost exclusively of debates, not the most exciting way of keeping audiences riveted.

But the star helps prop it all up. Langella is always prone to overacting, but as Sir Thomas, his clear diction and naturally resonant voice serve him in good stead. He occasionally bellows when vocal softness would work better (as Scofield proved onstage and in the film), but he has a firm grasp of the character, nicely balancing the overriding seriousness with humorous asides.

In a mostly competent supporting cast, Patrick Page stands out in his lone scene as the king, making his bluster amusing without seeming ridiculous; Dakin Edwards also makes an impression in his brief appearance as the cardinal. Otherwise, the actors do their work proficiently, and stay out of Langella’s way.

Santo Loquasto’s unit set—the frame of a Tudor house—is merely functional, with Catherine Zuber’s costumes coming out slightly ahead. David Lander’s superior lighting design includes a clever evocation of the river during several scenes where one character or another waits on shore for a boat to arrive. Only at the end, as Sir Thomas ascends the stairs for his final date with destiny, does the director indulge in theatrical showboating.

Indeed, for much of this production, the only grandstanding is done by Langella, but since it’s not that frequent, will it be enough for audiences who want to see their favorite stars “act”?

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