If you’re going on an ego trip, you might as well travel first-class. So why is Kelsey Grammer, the lovable star of TV’s “Frasier” and a man who can certainly afford luxurious accommodations, returning to Broadway in a poor man’s “Macbeth”? As star vehicles go — and the production is without question a star vehicle — this underpopulated, underdirected and practically undesigned “Macbeth” is the equivalent of a dilapidated Chevy Nova. The production’s paltry texture might be forgivable — or at least forgettable — if it surrounded a central performance of great insight or vitality, but Grammer’s Macbeth, though handsomely and intelligently spoken, is essentially an empty star turn, a series of fancy speeches magnanimously tossed to the audience as if they were red roses.
Director Terry Hands plays up all the most familiar conceptions about Shakespeare’s briefest, bluntest tragedy. Yes, “Macbeth” is an unremittingly dark journey into the mind of a man seduced into evil by his ambition, so the show unfolds on a darkened, bare stage drenched in baleful black paint. A single torch — the light of good shining bravely in a benighted world — glimmers at the back of the stage throughout the evening.
And yes, “Macbeth” is a zippy play (for the Bard, anyway) that moves like lightning through its bloody paces, so Hands’ production proceeds at a merciless clip, coming in at two hours without an intermission. Actors all but fall over each other making entrances and exits, while the play’s disturbed psychological milieu, of the natural order corrupted in extremis, is dutifully evoked by innumerable ominous thunderclaps.
But beyond its speed, darkness and portentous soundscape, Hands’ “Macbeth” offers us little. The supporting cast is largely undistinguished, although it may be hard for even the finest actors to create credible performances with no support from evocative staging, atmosphere or even props and costumes. (The wardrobe by Timothy O’Brien, who also designed the skeletal sets, consists mostly of contemporary pants and T-shirts, the latter mostly black, sometimes wrinkled, and on occasion dressed up with belts — a seriously unflattering look.)
As an aesthetic, minimalism requires far more imagination than Zeffirellian splendor, but there’s little in evidence in this production. Less is definitely not more here: The banquet scene, a key turning point in the play, is entirely drained of its dramatic impact by the skimpy production values — this regal repast is staged with three chairs around a small round table; you half expect someone to pass around a box of Wheat Thins. The show’s stark mise-en-scene cruelly exposes its performers, who must try to evoke a complex world and a variety of relationships in brief scenes with only the help of a few spotlights. And unfortunately, Hands, who also designed the lighting, seems to have lavished more attention on the disposition of these spotlights than on the performances of the people trapped within them.
Diane Venora, whose Shakespearean resume includes three Public Theater “Hamlets” (as the prince, Ophelia and most recently Gertrude), is merely adequate as Lady Macbeth. There are no surprising colors or nuances in her portrait of a cold-blooded, grasping termagant, and her sleepwalking scene hasn’t much pathos, despite some fancy vocal variations she employs and a climactic, agonized wail. Among the supporting players, Michael Gross stands out for the innate dignity and assurance of his Ross, and Peter Gerety handily seduces audience affection with his pungent comic turn as the drunken porter. But most of the performances are negligible, with Sam Breslin Wright’s Malcolm, a key force for good against Macbeth’s iniquity, coming across here as a risibly puny figure.
The title role is, of course, a dangerous seducer of ambitious actors. Macbeth is apportioned many of Shakespeare’s most famous speeches (“Is this a dagger I see before me…,” “Tomorrow and tomorrow…”), each packed with rich imagery and beautiful phrases. And indeed, it’s obviously the language that attracted Grammer to the role: He savors the monologues as if they were big pieces of rhetorical candy, delivering them up to the audience with admirable clarity in his potent and appealing baritone. Certainly he far outshines the rest of the cast in terms of vocal grace and textual articulation.
Nevertheless, this is an inadequate performance, because it consists of nothing but prettily intoned phrases. Grammer substitutes eloquent speechifying for authentic emotional involvement in Shakespeare’s potentially gripping drama of a man’s moral and psychological disintegration. Although the grim set of his square jaw and a tendency to growl indicates Macbeth’s increasing brutality, Grammer’s usurping king never really becomes a man driven to the edge and beyond by a corrupt soul warring with the specters of remorse. A truly tormented man couldn’t continue to address the audience with such consistent vocal refinement, seemingly oblivious to the emotional context of the moment.
If lackluster audiences in previews are any indication, Broadway theatergoers aren’t clamoring to see how a favorite TV star fares in one of the theater’s most demanding roles. And those who do venture to buy tickets may feel cheated by this uninspired production and its cheesy trappings. They’d be justified in their irritation: For a $70 top ticket, audiences are buying the privilege of spending two hours as hostages to a star’s ego.