Chukwudi Iwuji (Edgar) and John Lithgow (King Lear); Credit Joan Marcus

Chukwudi Iwuji (Edgar) and John Lithgow (King Lear); Credit Joan Marcus

There is a moment in the opening scene of King Lear on which I believe the entire play hinges. This production by Shakespeare in the Park at the Delacorte Theater was no exception.  After the announcement of his “darker purpose” Lear declares that his kingdom and power will be divided among his three daughters. He metaphorically claps his hands and asks his daughters to tell him which of them loves him best. He does this because there is no Mrs. Lear to tell him, “Bad idea, Buckaroo.” The first two daughters line up like Cinderella’s sisters on a runway to see who can out do whom in professing their love. First Goneril (Annette Bening) and then Regan (Jessica Hecht) shovel the manure so fast you nearly reach for your wading boots. Finally it is Cordelia’s turn, but when Lear begs her for speech more opulent, she balks. She will not blather about love when she can say it plainly. But this is not what her father wants to hear. When Cordelia balks, Lear snaps.

That is the moment. This tiny pas de deux, which you will miss if you blink.

Initially it is Cordelia’s move, and she has to hit it spot on – she has no lead in line, nothing to guide her to this moment in the script. It is a leap worthy of an Olympic medal if she gets it. And if she does, the moment is passed to Lear in a flash. It is he who must make the catch and slam the nail into the coffin of their relationship.

In the most recent productions that I have scene, one Cordelia delivered and two did not. In this production Jessica Collins handled her moment beautifully. John Lithgow, as Lear, fumbled the pass. His reaction was flighty and without depth. It was more of a hissy fit than a man who has been gravely wounded by his own blind misinterpretation. The rest of the evening followed down the fumbled path.

This is a disjoint, mechanical and plodding production. It is supposed to be about a man kicked off his high horse and brought down to his own common denominator. And as he tumbles we want, and don’t want, to be taken with him because his humanity is directly connected to ours. But there is none of that here. Lithgow as Lear is nearly lighthearted in his decent, getting laughs at lines that should break out hearts. As well, his Fool, Steven Boyer, seems about as concerned for his master’s demise as a man strolling through the park in search of a good night’s entertainment. A matched pair of the uncompelling.

Jay O. Sanders is a bright spot, though I liked him better disguised as Caius than as the Earl of Kent. Clarke Peters’ Earl of Gloucester is moving and elegant as are his two sons Edgar (Chukwudi Iwuji) and Edmond (Sheffer Stevens). Jessica Hecht brings nuance to Regan. So it is not a horrid evening. It’s just that nothing sticks to anything. There is no thread that pulls them together. There are moments upon moments. And I must say I can’t remember any production where so many characters spent so much time backing up (Annette Bening takes the prize here). Hello in there!!! The only time we humans back up is to get out of the way of someone or something. These folks were backing up as though someone was pulling them on a cord. Which translates into them looking like they are not certain of their blocking or intention.

I never cared about any of them. Not a whit. I do care about the actors who are all out there giving it everything and being the butt for the slings and arrows that are bound to be aimed. Mr. Sullivan’s direction fails to support them as the steer their craft through the evening. In the final scene, when pretty much all the main players are dead, and Albany (Christopher Innvar) says “Our present business is general woe,” it rings too true. Way too true. 

King Lear

By William Shakespeare; directed by Daniel Sullivan; sets by John Lee Beatty; costumes by Susan Hilferty; lighting by Jeff Croiter; sound by Acme Sound Partners; music by Dan Moses Schreier; video by Tal Yarden; wig and hair design by Tom Watson; fight director, Rick Sordelet; production stage manager, Cole Bonenberger; associate artistic director, Mandy Hackett; associate producer, Maria Goyanes; general manager, Steven Showalter; production executive, Ruth E. Sternberg. A Shakespeare in the Park production, presented by the Public Theater, Oskar Eustis, artistic director; Patrick Willingham, executive director. At the Delacorte Theater, Central Park, reached by entering the park at 81st Street and Central Park West; Through Aug. 17. Running time: 3 hours.

WITH: Annette Bening (Goneril), Jeremy Bobb (Oswald), Steven Boyer (Lear’s Fool), Jessica Collins (Cordelia), Glenn Fleshler (Duke of Cornwall), Ryan-James Hatanaka (Duke of Burgundy), Jessica Hecht (Regan), Slate Holmgren (King of France), Christopher Innvar (Duke of Albany), Chukwudi Iwuji (Edgar), John Lithgow (King Lear), Clarke Peters (Earl of Gloucester), Dale Place (Curan/Old Man), Jay O. Sanders (Earl of Kent) and Eric Sheffer Stevens (Edmund).