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Theater aficionados would likely pay good money to watch the inimitable Glenda Jackson read the phone book, as the proverbial platitude goes. But director Sam Gold challenges that now-outdated cliché with his misguided production of King Lear, which boasts the remarkable actress and former longtime British MP as Shakespeare’s declining ruler. On the night I attended, early in the show a valet bringing Lear the crown stumbled and dropped the prop. Jackson let out an angry howl that echoed throughout the Cort Theatre in what looked to be an ad-lib, but it summed up everyone’s frustration with Gold’s handling of the tragedy. The usually dependable and insightful Tony and Obie winner (Fun Home, Circle Mirror Transformation) seems to be going out of his way to unnecessarily complicate virtually every aspect of this consistently awkward staging.
The story takes place in a gold-plated rectangular, horizontal space, with characters in relatively modern dress. (The set is by Miriam Buether, with costumes by Ann Roth.) Ruth Wilson is excellent as both Cordelia and the Fool, although it is sometimes hard to tell when she is one or the other. John Douglas Thompson is stalwart as Kent, his authoritative voice booming, but the rest of the cast seems lost, seeking Gold to guide them not unlike poor Tom (Sean Carvajal) leading his blinded father, Gloucester (Jayne Houdyshell), to the edge of a precipice. The Duke of Cornwall is portrayed by Russell Harvard, a deaf actor who is followed around by Michael Arden, who translates for him in American Sign Language. Philip Glass has composed a lovely score, performed by violinists Cenovia Cummins and Martin Agee, violist Chris Cardona, and cellist Stephanie Cummins; when they unobtrusively play in the far back corner, all is well, but later they come to the front and mingle with the actors, which is unnerving and off-putting. Goneril (Elizabeth Marvel) at first shows empathy for Cordelia, but that changes fast, leading to a sexual expression that made the audience gasp in horror. Pedro Pascal is ineffective as the devious Edmund, while Carvajal is too plain as his too-trusting half-brother, Edgar. The cast also includes Dion Johnstone as the Duke of Albany, Aisling O’Sullivan as a vicious Regan, Ian Lassiter as the King of France, and Matthew Maher as a creepy Oswald. Oh, and there are gunshots.
Fortunately, watching Jackson for nearly three and a half hours — she does take that long break at the beginning of the second act, and the play suffers even further in her absence — makes this Lear worth it; Jackson, now eighty-two, might be a wisp of a thing, but she radiates intense strength and greatness every step of the way. But be advised that this is not Deborah Warner’s 2016-17 version that took London by storm. I am no traditionalist by any means — for example, I adore what Daniel Fish has done with Oklahoma! — but Gold has deconstructed the play only to reconstruct it with, dare I say, a Lear-like madness that just too often is baffling if not downright annoying. New York has seen many a Lear over the last dozen years — Sir Ian McKellen, Sir Derek Jacobi, John Lithgow, Frank Langella, Sir Antony Sher, Michael Pennington, and Sam Waterston — and Jackson is a worthy addition to that list, but it is telling that she received neither a Tony nor a Drama Desk nomination for her performance, and the production also did not get nods for Best Revival. It’s like an imperfect storm, with Jackson at the center, trying to survive the downpour, along with the rest of us.