Friday, August 8, 2014

NYC Theater Roundup—'King Lear' in Central Park, 'Sex with Strangers' off-Broadway

King Lear
Written by William Shakespeare; directed by Daniel Sullivan
Performances through August 17, 2014
Delacorte Theatre, Central Park, New York, NY

Sex with Strangers
Written by Laura Eason; directed by David Schwimmer
Performances through August 31, 2014
Second Stage Theatre, 305 West 43rd Street, New York, NY

Sanders, Bening and Lithgow in King Lear (photo: Joan Marcus)
It says something about the current state of our theater that the most emotionally draining of Shakespeare's great tragedies, King Lear, keeps appearing on our stages in lackluster productions, or even worse. Of the Lears I've seen since F. Murray Abraham's 1996 abomination at the Public Theater—Christopher Plummer, Kevin Kline, Derek Jacobi, Sam Waterston, Frank Langella—they have all come to various griefs, even if some of them did get aspects of the most difficult role in the Shakespearean canon right.

Now it's John Lithgow's turn: his Lear—the first one in Central Park since 1974, when James Earl Jones assayed the role—begins as a jolly, almost Falstaffian, king, and with Lithgow's imposing manner (he's 6'4") and big white beard, he comes across as Santa-like rather than kingly. Lithgow has impressive moments in the black-comic stretches on the heath when Lear—fast losing his grasp on a tenuous sanity after banishing beloved young daughter Cordelia and being summarily rejected by ungrateful older daughters Goneril and Regan, who now rule his kingdom—is reduced to a near-naked pauper, and he's with only his trusty Fool and two loyal subjects in disguise, Kent (also banished by Lear) and Edgar (whose bastard half-brother Edmund has convinced his gullible father, Gloucester, that Edgar is the bad guy).

But Lithgow is more problematic in the tragic scenes, since he tends to exaggerate his line readings (with the welcome exception of his restrained and touching response to Edgar asking to kiss his hand: "Let me wipe it first—it smells of mortality"). He oversells Lear's anger over being shunned by Goneril and Regan in turn, and in the final scene with Cordelia's corpse, his overdone bellowing makes it seem as if he wants to prove that he literally has the lungs to play the part. He also gives a weird emphasis to each of the five shattering, climactic "nevers."

Director Daniel Sullivan's stark, one-dimensional staging isn't helped by Susan Hilferty's bland costumes, John Lee Beatty's monochrome set and Dan Moises Schreier's annoyingly—and overused—banging percussion. Jeff Croiter's vivid lighting gives the show its few moments of excitement during the storm scene. The uneven supporting cast starts with Lear's daughters: Jessica Collins' headstrong Cordelia and Annette Bening's regal Goneril are unbalanced by Jessica Hecht's banal Regan, another of this actress's shrill, affected and incongruous performances.

Also unfelictious are Chukwudi Iwuji's cardboard Edgar, Eric Scheffer Stevens' garish Edmund and Glenn Fleshler's humdrum Cornwall. Pluses are Steven Boyer's tough-minded, smartly uncampy Fool and Jay O. Sanders' sensitive Kent (although I wish he didn't affect such a blatant low-class accent while in disguise); Christopher Innvar's Albany at least has noble bearing and Clarke Peters is a strong-voiced Gloucester. 

Now that John Lithgow has failed his ascent of the imposing mountain that is King Lear, who will be brave—or foolhardy—enough to attempt it next?

Gunn and Magnussen in Sex with Strangers (photo: Joan Marcus)
Sex with Strangers, Laura Eason's amusing two-hander about Olivia, a struggling novelist whose unexpected meeting with one of her biggest fans—Nathan, a sex blogger turned bestselling author—hits on interesting subjects: how the internet has changed the publishing world and how, in 2014, two people who are aged 30 and 40 might as well be 30 years apart. 

But despite being relevant, these subjects aren't really explored in any depth: Eason's facile writing masks this liability to a certain extent, while the spiffy staging by director David Schwimmer and the delicious performances by Anna Gunn and Billy Magnussen as the protagonists make the play seem deeper and cleverer than it is. 

There are humorous asides about the twitter/blogosphere generation (Ethan's, of course)—which lacks any sense of propriety or privacy—and the pre-internet generation (Olivia's)—for whom the smell and feel of an actual book outweighs the economics of e-books and e-readers. But despite such flickers of insight, and the intriguing power plays between Olivia and Ethan, there's a sense that it's all a ruse, a put-on, something underscored by an open-ended denouement that's a cheap attempt to underline this black-and-white world with ambiguity. 

But Gunn and Magnussen's easy rapport, along with their efficient simulation of various sex acts (which raise questions of intimacy and hypocrisy also blithely unexplored), make Sex with Strangers a quite attractive diversion.

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