Reprieve from a bruising onslaught of disappointing productions has arrived at last with Jack O'Brien's lucid, endlessly captivating staging of "Henry IV," which crackles across the Vivian Beaumont stage for nearly four hours without losing an ounce of its surging theatrical momentum.

The funeral wreaths for Broadway’s lackluster fall season can be taken down and replaced by more festive arrangements. Reprieve from a bruising onslaught of disappointing productions has arrived at last with Jack O’Brien’s lucid, endlessly captivating staging of “Henry IV,” which crackles across the Vivian Beaumont stage for nearly four hours without losing an ounce of its surging theatrical momentum.

This is populist Shakespeare at its finest: vividly acted, cleanly spoken, staged with a propulsive narrative sweep and an eye for poetic imagery. The battle scenes, so often perfunctory or clumsy, are choreographed with a welcome intensity; the humor is pungent but unforced; the verse is delivered with admirable ease and intelligibility. Most notably, the balance between light and dark in Shakespeare’s two plays — the production combines both parts — is punctiliously respected. Sir John Falstaff, the fat knight played by Kevin Kline, is not allowed to stuff the production into a bulging pocket and saunter off with the evening. (Harold Bloom, Falstaff’s chief literary cheerleader, would not approve.)

The production is not, of course, perfect — perhaps no staging of these capacious plays could be, since they must work on so many different levels. O’Brien’s “Henry IV” is better at the big brush strokes than emotional detail: There is a superficial quality to even the best of the central performances, including Kline’s admirable but surprisingly subdued Falstaff. Psychological intricacy takes a back seat to narrative clarity and eloquence of speech, for the most part.

That’s a liability in a work shot through with profound ambivalence about human motivation and the morality of the political and social order — the divided loyalties of Prince Hal are just the most prominent of the ambiguities that run through the play and are only lightly sketched in here. But O’Brien and his collaborators conjure with such conviction the matter and mood of Shakespeare’s multifaceted world that we rarely lament any lack of depth and shading in individual roles.

Dakin Matthews’ adaptation is, roughly speaking, two cups of part one to one cup part two. (The evening is performed with two intermissions; the events of “Henry IV, Part Two” are condensed into the last act.) Both plays contrast the citadels of power and politics with the lower-class world of play, where Falstaff reigns, but the picture darkens in part two, as the worlds merge to poisonous effect, culminating in Prince Hal’s famously cruel rejection of the jolly companion of his former days.

O’Brien’s production smoothly integrates the two spheres on a set by Ralph Funicello that takes full advantage of the Vivian Beaumont’s deep stage. Thick-trunked wooden scaffolding rises to the top of the theater, providing playing spaces on several levels. The higher ones are reserved for royals and aristocracy, while the roistering in Eastcheap and the violence of battle take place below. Brian MacDevitt’s atmospheric lighting helps carve out small pockets of light from darkness when characters retire to the inner chambers of their thoughts. Jess Goldstein’s attractive costumes marry period silhouettes with a sleek, contemporary look; the young warriors strut about in sexy, laced-up leather.

There are lots of stylish performances, too. Some of the sharpest impressions are made by actors with only a small amount of stage time. Notable among these is the man who melded the plays together, Matthews, who is quite superb in a pair of supporting perfs. As Glendower, the Welsh lord who gives aid to the rebels, he is a funny, rough-hewn troll, a creature out of “The Lord of the Rings”; only by consulting the program would you recognize him as the actor playing with such authoritative ease the humorless Chief Justice Warwick, Falstaff’s nemesis. Matthews has spent most of his career in regional theater — a loss for New York, since actors so at home in Shakespeare’s language are not exactly thick on the ground, even in the country’s theatrical capital.

A more recognizable figure to Gotham theatergoers is Audra McDonald, who has only a few scenes but makes the most of them as a hot-blooded Lady Percy, who accepts neither her husband’s neglect nor his death without a fight. McDonald’s musicality comes through in her smooth facility with the language — and there’s a delicious in-joke too, when, as the rebels relax before the conflict commences, Lady Percy demurs at a musical request, saying, “I will not sing!”

The comic sequences are likewise enlivened by deft, colorful presences in minor roles. Dana Ivey is perfection as a sharp Mistress Quickly, with a hilariously shrill whinny, and Jeff Weiss’ rancid Justice Shallow is a particular highlight of the final act.

Among the more prominent performers, there is only a single truly ineffective performance. Movie actor Ethan Hawke is simply out of his depth as Hotspur, the aggressive young rebel leader whose exploits are the envy of the land until impetuousness leads him into folly. Hawke barrels his way through the role with the volume turned up. The feeling is true (although a bit overstated), but Hawke cannot channel it through the verse, instead simply slathering it on top, messily. His demise at the battle of Shrewsbury is something of a relief.

The crucial trio in the play, of course, is Prince Hal and his two father figures. The tug of war for the spirit of Harry is the primary conduit for the plays’ deeper layers of meaning. King Henry IV represents the world of duty and power and responsibility — ideas that give primacy to the future and the past. Falstaff, Hal’s surrogate father from the lower depths, is the man who lives in the moment and for the moment, for life’s pleasures, which must be grasped with gusto to keep the specter of death at bay.

Falstaff, the consummate man of inaction, will say anything and everything to achieve his ends, but they are simple ones: eating, drinking and staying alive. He will come to see he’s tutored Hal too well in the art of talk, however, and will learn in the most brutal fashion that linguistic facility can be used to more momentous and unsavory ends.

The outcome of the battle for Harry’s soul is never really in doubt here: As played by Michael Hayden, in both style and substance Prince Hal is the clear successor to Richard Easton’s Henry IV. Both actors give vigorous, handsomely spoken performances that deliver the meaning of the verse with clarity; neither Hal nor Henry, however, strikes us as a man of profound feeling.

Nor, in truth, does Kline’s Falstaff. Kline’s debauched but dignified Sir John will surely be a highlight of this esteemed stage actor’s Shakespearean career. It’s a dryly funny, technically superb portrayal that shines a strong light on the glittering intelligence behind the character’s hearty cynicism — Kline is marvelously adroit at communicating the verbal wit that sings in Falstaff’s every line. But the performance stints on the exuberance we associate with the character, and cherish in him; Kline is almost unrecognizable inside a convincing fat suit, but the performance itself has a lean quality.

And yet, while Mr. Bloom would no doubt be scandalized that his beloved Falstaff has been cut down to size, the lack of theatrical volume in the performance brings a haunting sense of doom to Kline’s Falstaff. The relative sobriety of Kline’s reading carries its own pathos: This great symbol of life seems uncomfortably aware — even more so than usual — of the irksome proximity of death, always ready to spoil the party.

This is in part due to the severely truncated presentation of the play’s second part. The ruminations on illness and mortality, on the part of both Falstaff and Henry IV, are more tightly packed together. Some of the play’s other prominent themes — the increasing discordance between words and deeds, between appearance and actuality — are underrealized, but the ultimate battle that underscores the martial conflict on the play’s surface — the combat fought in every man’s flesh between life and death — is always a strongly felt presence.

Indeed here it is not Falstaff’s rejection by Prince Hal that breaks the heart — the bark of Hayden’s King Henry V frankly doesn’t have much emotional bite — but what follows immediately thereafter, a searing image that is the crowning moment of this beautifully directed production (perhaps Matthews’ editorial hand should share the credit).

After his plea for attention has been rebuffed, the court recedes, and Falstaff’s fellows abandon him in scorn. He stands alone and delivers into the fading light the last line: “I shall be sent for soon at night.” It’s a harrowing moment: We cannot escape, even if Falstaff does, the real meaning of the words. It’s not the king, but death itself that will soon be calling him to play.

Henry IV

Vivian Beaumont Theater; 1,047 seats; $85 top

Production

A Lincoln Center Theater presentation of the plays by William Shakespeare in three acts, adapted by Dakin Matthews. Directed by Jack O'Brien.

Creative

Sets, Ralph Funicello; costumes, Jess Goldstein; lighting, Brian MacDevitt; music and sound, Mark Bennett; fight director, Steve Rankin; special effects, Gregory Meeh; stage manager, Michael Brunner. Opened Nov. 20, 2003. Reviewed Nov. 16. Running time: 3 HOURS, 40 MIN.

Cast

King Henry IV - Richard Easton Henry (Hal) - Michael Hayden John of Lancaster - Lorenzo Pisoni Chief Justice Warwick/ Owen Glendower - Dakin Matthews Earl of Westmoreland - Tyrees Allen Thomas Percy - Byron Jennings Earl of Northumberland - Terry Beaver Lady Northumberland/ Mistress Quickly - Dana Ivey Henry Percy (Hotspur) - Ethan Hawke Lady Percy - Audra McDonald Sir Richard Vernon - Peter Jay Fernandez Edmund Mortimer - Scott Ferrara Lady Mortimer - Anastasia Barzee Lord Hastings - Stevie Ray Dallimore Archbishop of York/ Justice Silence - Tom Bloom Earl of Douglas - C.J. Wilson Sir John Falstaff - Kevin Kline Poins - Steve Rankin Pistol - David Manis Nym - Ty Jones Bardolph - Stephen DeRosa Doll Tearsheet - Genevieve Elam Francis - Aaron Krohn Ralph/Davy - Jed Orlemann Justice Shallow - Jeff Weiss
With: Christine Marie Brown, Albert Jones, Ty Jones, Lucas Caleb Rooney, Daniel Stewart Sherman, Corey Stoll, Baylen Thomas, Nance Williamson, Richard Ziman.

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