Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Waterston’s Dubious ‘Lear’; Cultural Clash in ‘Chinglish’

King Lear
Written by William Shakespeare; directed by James Macdonald
Starring Sam Waterston, Enid Graham, Michael McKean, John Douglas Thompson, Kelli O’Hara, Kristen Connolly, Bill Irwin
Previews began October 18, 2011; opened November 8; closes November 20
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, New York, NY

Written by David Henry Hwang; directed by Leigh Silverman
Starring Jennifer Lim, Gary Wilmes, Angela Lin, Christine Lin, Stephen Pucci, Johnny Wu
Previews began October 11, 2011; opened on October 27
Longacre Theatre, 220 West 48th Street, New York, NY

Connolly and Waterston in King Lear (photo by Joan Marcus)
As Shakespeare’s supreme achievement, King Lear is also supremely difficult to do right. As we’ve seen in New York in the past 15 years, worthy actors like Christopher Plummer, Kevin Kline, F. Murray Abraham and Derek Jacobi have disappointed in the most weighty title role in all of Shakespeare. So how does Sam Waterston do in his first Lear?

Not that well, unfortunately. Waterston begins badly during a cutesy opening scene where he sneaks up on his assembled subjects, then proceeds through odd, shrill line readings, annoying mannerisms and distracting tics. Although he improves later--his final scene with daughter Cordelia’s lifeless body is emotionally draining--the role’s tragic pathos eludes him, and Shakespeare’s stark, pitiless vision becomes mere bumpy melodrama.

Director James Macdonald also deserves blame for allowing Waterston’s unfocused Lear and Bill Irwin’s train wreck of a Fool to rob Shakespeare’s most psychologically complex scenes of their power. Otherwise, Macdonald deserves praise for his shrewd pacing (including effective use of the old trope of starting a new scene as the current one is ending) and cleverly using the production’s chain-mail curtain--which clanks annoyingly throughout the first half--by dropping to the floor in a heap when no longer needed.

Macdonald also shapes a respectable supporting cast: Enid Graham and especially Kelli O’Hara are forceful as Lear’s double-crossing daughters Goneril and Regan, Kristen Connolly is a sweet-tempered Cordelia, John Douglas Thompson a well-spoken Kent, and Michael McKean an eminently noble Gloucester--I’d like to see Laverne and Shirley’s Lenny, of all people, take his own stab at Lear one day.

Lim and Wilmes in Chinglish (photo by Michael McCabe)
Dislocation dominates David Henry Hwang’s Chinglish, a lighthearted seriocomic look at American-Chinese relations in the 21st century. Our complex global economy backdrops this witty story of an American businessman, Daniel Cavanaugh, who tries to get the leaders of the “small” (population: four million) Chinese town of Guiyang to agree to his proposal for properly translated signage at the new International Cultural Center.

Daniel finds that conducting business in China goes beyond simply correct translation. His translator/agent, a British teacher named Peter Timms who has been in China for 19 years, helps him navigate the maze of ministers but can’t help when Daniel has an affair with vice minister Xi Yan, who has her own reasons for helping an unknown American.

Hwang, who wrote the Tony-winning Best Play M. Butterfly in 1988, nimbly balances funny asides of breakdowns in communication--including hilarious mistranslations showing the difficulty in keeping partners on the same wavelength in business or the bedroom--with a serious exploration of today’s cutthroat business. Hilarity ensues when the Chinese discover Daniel worked at Enron; instead of ending negotiations, it raises their esteem of him as part of the biggest corporate failure in U.S. history.

Leigh Silverman’s fast-moving staging keeps such miscommunication bubbling, and David Korins’ wonderful set comprises three separate locations that are changed quickly and pointedly to visualize the atmosphere of disconnect. The excellent cast is led by Gary Wilmes, nicely understated as Daniel, the Cleveland native in his first deal abroad, and Jennifer Lim, masterly as the inscrutably inviting Xi Yan.

The lone quibble is the play’s lack of an ending; it simply comes to a halt. But that too is in keeping with Chinglish’s inventive study of a communication breakdown.

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