The sophomore slump has set in early at Nicholas Hytner’s National Theater, which kicks off its second season with a perverse production of “Cyrano de Bergerac” that’ss lacking in the play’s defining word, “panache.” Inaugurating the thrust Olivier stage’s second consecutive £10 Travelex season, in which two-thirds of tickets in the National’s largest auditorium are sold for less than the cost of a West End firstrun movie ticket, Howard Davies’ stripped-back staging seems faintly embarrassed by the play, its visual (and, at times, linguistic) austerity at odds with Edmond Rostand’s lush slice of 1897 Romanticism. The show will likely do well with auds enticed by the attractive pricing, but the sizable number of walkouts at the perf caught suggest that even here, as with everything, time is money.
That isn’t to say one has to have a picture-postcard “Cyrano.” Rostand’s crowd-pleaser — this is its fifth major London revival in the last 20 or so years — is about a nobility of spirit acknowledged too late, not the sort of fancy set decoration applied to it so memorably by the Royal Shakespeare Co. in 1982. But to pare any play away is to lay bare the text in ways that aren’t always useful. And as one watches Davies’ variable cast, headed by Stephen Rea, maneuver around William Dudley’s forbidding jungle gym of a set (if it weren’t for John Bright’s period costumes, the design might put you in mind of a slightly more epic “Stomp”), one comes up against a truth long suspected about “Cyrano”: It is a thick, often joyous slab of sentimentality, but not a truly remarkable play.
The shortfall reveals itself in different ways, not least by association with the Moliere antiheroes whom Rea’s astringent Cyrano from the start suggests. The actual Cyrano (1619-55) was a near-exact contemporary of Moliere, so it’s not such a leap to rethink his stage incarnation as a later version of “The Misanthrope’s” societal truth-teller, Alceste. (Davies has spoken of regarding Cyrano as “Pinocchio in reverse,” a man whose nose gets bigger the more laceratingly honest he is.)
Someone who prides himself on being difficult, relishes envy and revels in “daily hostility,” the facially challenged swordsman-poet Cyrano softens pretty much exclusively in the presence of his cousin, Roxane (the lovely Claire Price, late of “Brand”), who will discover only too late the source of the soaring lyricism that has laid hold of her heart.
Roxane, of course, thinks the arias of passion wafting up to her balcony are coming from Christian, the gallant if verbally deficient suitor whose ostensibly gorgeous visage is meant to conjoin with Cyrano’s words to make an unbeatably ardent whole. But in the oddest piece of major casting in many a season, Davies has asked the able but by no means beautiful Zubin Varla to play a part that, let’s face it, isn’t meant to be much more than a hunk.
The short, physically unprepossessing Varla, who was the best thing about the recent ill-fated stage adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children,” may have a lot going for him (he could play Cyrano someday, for instance), but eye candy he’s not. One could also argue that Rea isn’t an ideal Cyrano. The droopy-eyed actor has a great basset hound face and a richly melancholic mien, but he’s not the natural extrovert that Cyrano — however dyspeptic — must be: The actor gives you the character’s aching soul without fully registering the showman. (His physical gags, too, fall conspicuously flat.)
Then again, the play’s yearning often is scuppered by Belfast poet’s Derek Mahon’s new translation, whose modernity is evident from the “fuck off” heard within the first few minutes. From there, we’re on to references to “eco-friendly” and “rocket science,” alongside any number of lewd rhymes. Mahon can lift the spirits as well — there’s a lovely line late on about “the last panache in the fall from air to earth, earth to ash” — but the prevailing jokiness takes its toll. As with the design, one is aware of a production fundamentally at odds with the play (a true empty space might have been preferable to Dudley’s clangorous set), as if Davies had discovered too late in the game that, for whatever reason, he didn’t actually like “Cyrano” very much.
And having forsaken scenic embellishments, does the production really need substitute stuff from another source? The Gascon military falling artsily to the ground in a risible dance of death isn’t the best advertisement for veteran British choreographer Christopher Bruce, onetime a.d. of Britain’s prestigious Rambert Dance Co. (David Bintley’s flop “Cyrano” for the Royal Ballet in 1991 might have hinted at the difficulty inherent in wedding this play to dance.) But it’s not just the soldiers who take a tumble here.