Vocal coaching has inspired some lasting theatrical encounters going back well beyond “My Fair Lady” and “the rain in Spain.” But even by Lerner and Loewe’s exalted standards, there’s something treasurable about the prolonged scene early in the second act of Nicholas Wright’s “Cressida” in which an entertaining if discursive play becomes an utterly entrancing one. The scene is London’s Globe Theater back in the 1630s, where men were aging actor-managers like Michael Gambon’s John Shank and boys were, well, mostly girls — like Stephen Hammerton (Michael Legge), the barely pubescent recruit (and incipient Cressida in Shakespeare’s play) whom Shank must educate in a dying discipline.
Stephen is a prissy Yorkshireman newly arrived from a rival theater company who is being trained in the thespian art by an acknowledged master, Shank’s “boy-launderer” at the time of Charles I. (Think a more benign Fagin, with better teeth, and you get the picture.) What’s important, Shank explains to his young charge, is “the throw” — the ability to project your voice so that Shakespeare’s words cut into the ambient “sounds of London.” And in a master class beyond the measure of anything imagined in, say, “Master Class,” Gambon’s Shank is soon demonstrating just that, pouring forth the Bardic verse with such passion that we seem to be hearing his words even once speech stops and this actor’s famously expressive hands take over.
Shank is a great role, and he’s blessed in being originated by a great actor, whose portrayal in this deceptively exacting part — however frothy it looks, its demands must be huge — is every bit the match of the same actor-knight’s Eddie Carbone in “A View From the Bridge” or his blustery entrepreneur in “Skylight,” to cite just two of Gambon’s many career highs.
“Taste each word,” Shank advises his still-fledgling colleague, as if that utterance were “the first apple of the year.” Gambon’s performance, in turn, is so succulent that you can taste it without ever once feeling that it is overripe.
The same can’t always be said for the play itself, the first original drama in 12 years from Wright, who remains probably best-known for “Mrs. Klein.” (Other credits include the adaptation of Pirandello’s “Naked,” with Mira Sorvino , which opened April 9 Off Broadway at Classic Stage Co.) There’s no doubt that theater lovers (not to mention industry insiders) will relish his portrait of a bygone era that seems all too drolly up-to-date, not least when Malcolm Sinclair — playing, deliciously, the Lord Chamberlain’s representative — begins talking like the most contemporary of theatrical wheeler-dealers: a CAA agent in embryo. There’s an undeniable fascination, too, in exploring terrain that “Shakespeare in Love” left out: the waning years of the boy-actor, an industry now only marginally less quaint than that of the operatic castrato.
How uninitiates will take to the evening is less clear, especially since Nicholas Hytner’s production — not to mention Bob Crowley’s somewhat fussy set — doesn’t yet have the fluency that this director (with a different designer) brought most recently to Alan Bennett’s “The Lady in the Van.” While enjoyable moment-to-moment, the play’s slackly paced first act doesn’t always make apparent any larger point beyond immersing us in a fully documented world that Wright has apparently been researching for years. And though Wright’s ending implies a kind of transcendence — there, as at the outset, sits Gambon fancifully perched atop a cloud — the play isn’t the moving love letter to the theater that by rights it should be. On that front, at least, “Amy’s View” it’s not.
What is moving is the commitment of an ensemble that mixes old pros (Charles Kay, for instance, as a onetime boy-actor-turned-dresser, a self-confessed “old queen”) with able newcomers, among them “Shakespeare in Love” alum Daniel Brocklebank as the most defiantly louche of Shank’s androgynous charges. (The actor has Angelina Jolie’s darkly suggestive eyes.) Playing Shank’s apoplexy-prone principal apprentice, Legge has a near-impossible task: It’s not easy to play a bad actor who becomes a good actor without leaving the audience wondering which, in fact, the chosen actor actually is. Still, Legge couldn’t have come under better tutelage than the “ol’ Shankie” of that rare talent, Gambon, who makes every thespian trick ring true. “Cressida” may be about the passing of the torch, but it’s at its best in the hands of an actor who increasingly seems without peer.