By Vicki Weisfeld
It’s Christmas 1183. The succession to the English throne is in disarray.
It’s November 2016. Your reviewer is in disarray. My tickets for this production at Two River Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey, were not for opening night, as I thought (that will be November 18), but for the first preview. If you go—and for many reasons the play is well worth seeing—the problems in the second act will most likely have been resolved by director Tyne Rafaeli.
James Goldman’s 1966 play exposed deep schisms in the English court as Henry II (played by Michael Cumpsty) reached the “advanced” age of 50. He is intent upon preserving his empire, which includes England and provinces in France, especially the jewel, Aquitaine, acquired through his marriage to the elegant, passionate Eleanor (Dee Hoty). While he holds court in France, she has been imprisoned in an English castle for the past decade for treachery against Henry. She’s just arrived at the Chinon castle, released temporarily to celebrate Christmas in the viper-riddled bosom of her family.
The couple’s oldest son has died, and they are left with an unpromising trio of sons: Richard (KeiLyn Durrel Jones), Geoffrey (Hubert Point-Du Jour), and the youngest, John (Noah Averbach-Katz). Sullen warrior Richard (the Lionhearted) is the queen’s choice to succeed Henry, but the king wants the childish and rather dim John to follow him. For some reason that even he cannot understand, the scheming Geoffrey is overlooked by everyone, a non-entity in a family of manipulative power brokers.
All five of them are plotting and counter-plotting, negotiating and undermining, and trying their best to strike secret deals with the visiting 18-year-old French King Philip (Ronald Peet). Philip agrees to every plot. Why not? This is first-rate entertainment. If they tear each other apart, as every indication suggests they will, he can step in and pick up the pieces.
Henry and Eleanor’s relationship is the real heart of the play, and it has been complicated by Eleanor’s young step-daughter Alais (pronounced “Alice” and played by Madeleine Rogers), who has a long-running affair with Richard. Cumpsty and Hoty are strong in their roles, and play off each other beautifully—believable antagonists whose love still breaks through, time to time. He was a teenager when she first saw him at the French court, “with a mind like Aristotle and a body like Mortal Sin.” Were their sons ever more than pawns in their dangerous game?
Despite the deadly seriousness of the characters’ plotting, the play has quite a few lines intended to draw laughter and they did. Under Rafaeli’s direction, Act I perked along smoothly. Act II lost energy and felt over-long. I trust they will tighten that up.
Production credits to Kristen Robinson, whose scenic design nicely reinforces the king’s reference to the family as “jungle creatures”; Jennifer Tipton (Lighting Design); Josh Schmidt (Sound Design); Andrea Hood (Costume Design); J. Steven White (Fight Direction); and Jenny Kennedy (Production Stage Manager).
For tickets, call the Two River box office at 732-345-1400 or visit the box office online.